This Week in Moral Panic

A few stories from New Zealand over the past few days:

Cheap smokes!

“I’m bloody horrified, but not surprised at their tactics,” [Maori Party MP Hone Harawira] said. “There’s now overwhelming support from New Zealanders to get rid of tobacco in this country and companies are doing their best to hook as many people as possible now, so they’re lowering prices and upping nicotine and marketing into places like Aranui and Otara.”

“What they are doing is maximising their profit before their demise and they don’t care that they’re killing New Zealanders to achieve it,” he said.

Gangs!

Local government leaders are seeking a law change to allow other councils to follow Whanganui’s lead and ban gang patches.

Whanganui was given the right to pass a bylaw last year banning all gang insignia except tattoos from public places, but other councils wanting to do the same must get their own enabling law through Parliament.

Party pills!

Police and customs officials are worried a party drug linked to the deaths of two teenagers in Britain is now circulating in New Zealand.

It is feared the banned drug mephedrone, also known as M-cat, meow and plant food, is growing in popularity as a substitute for ecstasy. (…)

Although no cases have turned up at hospital emergency departments as yet, potential side effects of the drug range from vomitting, nausea and nose bleeds, right through to hallucinations, fits, paranoia, anxiety and depression.

The long-term side effects are still not known.

Child sexualization!

“It is time to confront the issue of ‘corporate pedophilia’ and the ‘raunch culture’ which is harming the self-esteem, body image and academic performance of our young people,” says Mr McCoskrie.

Gambling!

The findings were clear – every additional pokie machine in a community results in .8 new problem gamblers. Further, there is no evidence that this plateaus.

Graeme Ramsey, Problem Gambling Foundation CEO, says research such as this should inform gambling policy.

Stand by for regulation.

Democraphobia Goes Mainstream (Sort of)

This op-ed from Tapu Misa contains an odd mix of democraphobia (yay!) and statophilia (boo!). First the good:

The catalyst for the march was the Government daring to ignore the result of the recent ambiguously worded citizens-initiated referendum on the child discipline law.

Which means the Government is clearly undemocratic. “The people are the boss and the Government has to listen to them,” said Craig.

Well, yes and no.

The trouble with the might-is-right, majority rules brand of democracy has always been painfully obvious for those of us accustomed to occupying minority perches.

As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In a straight-out numbers game, the lamb always loses.

I couldn’t agree more. She goes on, however, to defend a utopian version of representative democracy:

But representative democracy, as advanced by 18th century British MP Edmund Burke, promotes a higher ideal built on notions of the common good.

Burke felt MPs weren’t just delegates, elected to do their constituents’ every bidding. While “their wishes ought to have great weight”, he argued that an MP’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” ought not to be sacrificed in the process.

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

True to his convictions, Burke backed several unpopular causes during his time in Parliament, knowing that it would probably cost him his seat (which it did), but determined to show “that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.

He was right. Sometimes, the people can get it badly wrong.

Yes, they can. But so can those representatives they elect to lead. Afterall, they are elected by those same people who sometimes get it badly wrong. Representative democracy does have the capacity to mitigate the effects of moral panics and other short-term fluctuations in preferences. It does this by introducing some inefficiency into the transmission of preferences into policy, however, rather than by electing noble leaders.

There’s simply no justification for the assumption that politicians will be better than the rest of us. Sometimes politicians will make better decisions than the majority; sometimes worse. Representative democracy is still two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, but with some slack in decision-making that may occasionally save the lamb when the wolves have only a fleeting craving.

As Crampton has argued, government implies a trade-off between the costs of populist democracy and self-serving politicians. When we give politicians more power in an attempt to reduce the mob-rule nature of democracy, we enable them to take advantage of the rest of us. As long as we have government, we can only ever strike a balance between these problems, never avoid both (unless we can elect wise and benevolent philosopher kings, of course, which seems to be the preferred option of many).

Still, it’s nice to see something other than democratic cheerleading from the MSM. I particularly like Misa’s conclusion:

As the philosopher and writer Ayn Rand observed, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by the majority (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

I find her proposed solution (and Rand’s, for that matter) hopelessly utopian, however. As long as we have government, there’s no way to navigate between the problems of mob rule and arbitrary power and have an acceptable degree of freedom.

Sounds like a good reason not to have government to me.

Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

That’s the title of  a forthcoming book by Mark Schrad, which looks very interesting. I’ve read a paper on this topic by the author, which has been very useful to the chapter I’m currently writing of my thesis (basically analyzing the consequences of  what Schrad calls “bad policy ideas” on constitutional effectiveness). I really wish the book were out now. Here’s the blurb:

In The Political Power of Bad Ideas , Mark Lawrence Schrad looks on an oddity of modern history–the broad diffusion of temperance legislation in the early twentieth century–to make a broad argument about how bad policy ideas achieve international success. His root question is this: how could a bad policy idea–one that was widely recognized by experts as bad before adoption, and which ultimately failed everywhere–come to be adopted throughout the world? To answer it, Schrad uses an institutionalist approach, and focuses in particular on the US, Russia/USSR (ironically, one of the only laws the Soviets kept on the books was the Tsarist temperance law), and Sweden. Conventional wisdom, based largely on the U.S. experience, blames evangelical zealots for the success of the temperance movement. Yet as Schrad shows, “prohibition was adopted in ten countries other than the United States, as well as countless colonial possessions-all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal.” Schrad focuses on the dynamic interaction of ideas and political institutions, tracing the process through which concepts of dubious merit gain momentum and achieve credibility as they wend their way through institutional structures. And while he focuses on one episode, his historical argument applies far more broadly, and even can tell us a great deal about how today’s policy failures, such as reasons proffered for invading Iraq, became acceptable.

Drug Deaths vs Media Coverage

From the Guardian’s Data Blog comes this neat visualization of poisoning deaths from various drugs and compared to press coverage thereof. The at the comparison for pot in particular.

I think this image, which shows the deaths as a proportion of users is probably more relevant when considering the likely social consequences of media bias.

The Most Disturbing Statistic I Found Today

In 1988, at the height of the HIV/AIDS panic in the States, the GSS asked a bunch of questions about AIDS. At that time, 63.7 percent of respondents favoured a policy of “requir[ing] people with the AIDS virus to wear identification tags that look like those carried by people with allergies or diabetes.”

Any kind of requirement for unpopular groups to identify themselves publicly reminds me a bit too much of this:

starofdavid

Update: Even more disturbingly, most people who personally knew AIDS victims supported compulsory IDs. Here’s the breakdown (as an image, since I can’t work out how to do tables in wordpress; click for larger):

gss-aidsids-aidsknow

gss-aidsids-aidsknow-chart

Disturbing. On the one hand, knowing someone with AIDS is likely to make the risk more salient. On the other, you’re supporting the branding of someone you know. The number of people surveyed with three or more acquaintances with AIDS is tiny, so it doesn’t tell us much; but I suspect knowing lots of people with AIDS is a good proxy for being well-integrated into the gay activist community, which should decrease support for tagging.

Drunk in Public

should-a

Geoffrey Palmer want to make being drunk in public an offence in New Zealand:

“It’s not an offence to be drunk in a public place but nonetheless police have to deal with (drunk people), but they have nowhere to take them.”

Being drunk in a public place should be an infringement offence that incurs a fine, Sir Geoffrey said.

The law could include drunk and disorderly behaviour or only being drunk and discretion be left to police on whether to charge someone or not. (…)

The amount of police resources used policing the “late night culture” in New Zealand was “truly astonishing”, he said.

“Unless you saw it you wouldn’t believe it.”

This guy is clearly a puritan; he doesn’t like drinking and feels the need to Do Something about it. He’s willing to cite whatever shonky research best serves his case.

Still, at first glance, banning public drunkenness seems like a better option than increasing the excise tax on alcohol or taking other measures to “reduce availability.” If government wants to reduce the external costs of alcohol, it should address behaviour most closely related to external harm. People who are drunk in public are far more likely than those having a couple of beers at home to cause problems for others. As Ed Stringham puts it, “raising taxes on alcohol to prevent problem drinking is akin to raising the price of gasoline to prevent people from speeding.”

As it happens, I don’t think government should be concerned with reducing the social costs of alcohol: I think they are much smaller than the social costs of any policy intervention I can imagine. Even if we accept the need to Do Something, however, Palmer’s proposal worries me more than other (perhaps less efficient) means of alcohol control.

Since being drunk is arbitrary, the proposal would give police more arbitrary power. As someone who takes the rule of law seriously, this worries me more than the (very high) cost of excise taxes on innocent drinkers. Unless you think being drunk is itself wrong, in which case I don’t much value your opinion, this gives cops another legal weapon to brandish against innocent people they don’t quite like the look of.

Discretionary power sounds reasonable enough, but it is dangerous. It replaces the rule of law with the rule of men, and history teaches us that power corrupts.

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