Sunday, 8 June 2014

Response To Anonymously Authored "Thinking Taiwan" Article On Drugs Policy

Last night, after I finished work and had taken the dogs out, I went to the camera shop to buy some new kit: a new 10-24mm wide-angle lens, a new 70-300mm telephoto lens, a new kit-bag, new tripod and some other bits and pieces. Unfortunately, the weather today is overcast and dull with the odd bit of drizzle and so rather than go outside to mess about taking pictures of sparrows and whatnot, I'm going to leave the new lenses sitting in the dry-box today. It would have been ideal to have had them last weekend when there was more time and the weather was fantastic, but as things stand I'll keep an eye on the weather forecasts for the coming week. At some point this month I'm going to station the little black motorbike up north somewhere, and try to do a few consecutive trips to explore and photograph one of the northern reservoirs.

In the meantime, it's been somewhat frustrating to see so many new articles go up on "Thinking Taiwan" but not being able to comment on them. One such article was this one entitled "Time For A Fresh Start On Drugs Policy", which was apparently written by a former diplomat under cover of anonymity.

On this subject* - i.e. of what a rational drug policy should be, my starting point is to reject the premise: there should be no government policy, which is to say that the market for recreational drugs should be decriminalized, rather than legalized. I oppose the legalization of drugs because, irrespective of whatever the intentions of those arguing for this policy may be, it will be used to establish yet another frontier of government control through licensing rackets and sumptuary taxes. There are two reasons to think this is bad; first, because it is based on coercion and violation of liberty, and second because of its' possible consequences. At present there are markets for recreational drug use, albeit "black" ones. Under legalization, these markets would function without some of the present distorting effects consequent to criminalization, but they would likely incur new distortions from the costs of licensing and taxation. Newly legalized markets would be an improvement over the current black markets in the sense that less people would be imprisoned, but there is reason to believe that some types of drug-related crime would persist. Nevertheless I argue against both the present policy of drug criminalization and the proposed policy of drug legalization chiefly from my first reason: both rely on coercion and both are therefore attempts at coercive social control.

In the article at "Thinking Taiwan", the anonymous author "A.R." presents an argument for reforming the present drugs policy of coercive social control to an alternative policy of coercive social control. What follows are my criticisms of what the author has written, from beginning to end...
"Amid talk of constitutional reform and experts’ evaluations of drug laws in an era of surging substance use and jail overcrowding, the time has come for Taiwanese society and officials to engage in intelligent debate on the subject."
The opening paragraph. It is a non-sequitur: the conclusion that intelligent debate on drugs policy should be undertaken now, does not follow from the premise that somebody somewhere has recently been talking about constitutional reform. Nor does it follow from the premise that some experts have recently got around to evaluating drug laws, and nor does it follow from the premise that jails are overcrowded. Intelligent debate about drug policy can take place at any time, irrespective of those premises.

Of course that paragraph is just an opening riff to introduce the general subject of policy reform, and some readers may regard my judgement as applying an inappropriate logical standard to a stylistic use of semantics. Yet the author could have introduced the subject using the same points but without committing a non-sequitur simply by asking the question: "...has the time come for... intelligent debate on the subject?". That is a very cheap and yet substantial rewrite. Moreover, consider the implication of putting the introduction in declarative form: the author insists from the beginning that discussion should be about consequences disconnected from any clearly articulated ethical premises. That is within sight of an autocrat's insistence on an arbitrary change of policy.

Next (3rd paragraph)...
"Of the top 10 causes of death in Taiwan, year after year, alcohol and tobacco — two legal drugs — played a role. Together, they knock into a cocked hat any other possible cause of death."
Again I am strict: neither alcohol or tobacco "cause" anything. It is their consumption, and in particular, chronic consumption that helps to cause various cancers that then eventually bring about death. And again the appropriate rewrite is as substantive as it is cheap in word-economy: "...year after year, chronic consumption of alcohol and tobacco - two legal drugs - played a role...". Again, the reason I am strict is that the sloppy use of language leads to elision, and again, the elision of the ethical dimension: drugs do not administer themselves, people voluntarily choose to consume them and so it makes no sense to claim that drugs cause people to die - what causes people to die are the people themselves through their particular value selections, in this case chronic consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Yet further in the same paragraph we get this...
"In 2012 the FDA announced that the top 5 drugs abused in Taiwan were (with the exception of the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco, which kill vastly more Taiwanese than any other drug) Heroin (62.8%), Meths/Amphetamine (31.1%), Ketamine (5%) followed by Zolpidem (a prescription medicine) and Ecstasy. Apparently abuse of sleeping pills and other prescribed, legal, drugs is also becoming more prevalent."
(Emphasis added.) The author has written that alcohol and tobacco "kill" vastly more people than other drugs, and then followed this in the next sentence by claiming not that sleeping pills also "kill" people, but that only their "abuse" does. Of course this is just language, but the shifting language reflects the author's shifting priorities. Since alcohol "kills" more people than zolpidem, the author considers it convenient to locate the cause of zolpidem-related deaths in individual agency. Presumably, if enough people died after overdosing on sleeping pills, then the author would be denouncing zolpidem as a "killer". Obviously then the author is aware that the real killer here is the people themselves through their abuse of drugs. Word-economy is not the problem either, since as I have shown the appropriate re-writes are cheap. Our former diplomat is just speaking the usual parceltongue of politicians, as and when desired.

Next (5th paragraph)...
"To read, then, that in Taiwan, “Legislators defend the current policies, arguing that addiction, namely to heroin, the deadliest and the island’s most abused drug, is poison to the economy,” befuddles the mind. Clearly it is alcohol and tobacco that pose the biggest problems to the nation’s health and economy."
Presumably all the author meant there was that consumption of alcohol and tobacco is a bigger problem than the consumption of heroin; the notion that alcohol and tobacco consumption are the "biggest" problem in Taiwan is just absurd and again consequent to sloppy writing. It is even doubtful (to put it mildly) that the number of annual deaths is itself the "biggest" economic problem in Taiwan, and yet chronic consumption of alcohol and tobacco is but one among several causes of various cancers that eventually lead to death. The low birth-rate, size of government, education system and plenty of other things could at least as easily be regarded as the "biggest" economic problem.

Next (6th paragraph)...
"Like almost everywhere else around the world, Taiwan’s drug policies are not based on harm reduction through science-based fact."
Leaving aside the spastic-based writing, the author must surely have a one dimensional concept of "harm", and one which takes no account of the harm done to people by coercive dislocation of their values. What of the harm done to smokers by their political persecution over the past decade? What of the harm done to those convicted of felonies for having grown or sold cannabis? There is no science that can quantify the harm done to individual lives through the systemic warp of values.
"Instead, they are based on politics and supported by ignorance. The drug categories are wrong and need to be reviewed."
Indeed they are "based on politics", if what is meant by that is the electoral calculations of professional politicians. However, distinguishing policies "based on politics" from those "based on science" is itself deeply political; it conceals the premise that drug policy ought to be about "harm reduction" when in fact there are other values at stake besides that. Arguing that drug policy must be "based on science" in order to bypass the democratic process and have drug policy set by an unelected commission of experts is a response that carries its own dangers.

Next (10th paragraph)...
"For Taiwan to alleviate and more efficiently deal with drugs, it should adopt better, more intelligent, science-based policies to counter the harm that drugs do (with alcohol and tobacco once again topping the list)."
First of all, it is not a significant expense of word-economy to refer to "the Taiwan government" rather than the lazy one-worder "Taiwan". Again, the sloppy use of language is important because it leads to elision, in this case the elision of the subject and therefore the erasure of the ethical question: whether the problems associated with drug use should be "dealt with" by the coercive means of government, or by the voluntary means of civil society. Second, and returning to an earlier point, it is objectively untrue that drugs "cause" harm, it is the people who are using the drugs who are causing the harm. Lazily ascribing agency to inanimate objects is a degenerate misuse of language which conceals the real cause of the problems: the human failure to balance recreational pleasure with moral and ethical responsibilities. This failure may be partly a failure of what is now called "will power", but it is undoubtedly exacerbated by epistemic errors and in particular the error of ascribing agency to inanimate objects. Drugs do not administer themselves, but the linguistic insistence that they do reinforces one of the major errors that contribute to the problems associated with drug use.

Next (11th paragraph)...
"The economic case for a radical rethink is obvious. A recent report titled “Ending the Drug Wars” by the London School of Economics (LSE) Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy stated in its summary that, “It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies..."
I agree that the case for a radical rethink is obvious. But I disagree that the LSE's recommendations are in any sense "radical". Instead this is just another sloppy use of language. What the LSE is proposing is to swap the current policy arsenal of coercive social controls for another policy arsenal of somewhat different coercive social controls. Recategorizing various drugs, decriminalizing some (but not all) aspects of recreational drug markets and legalizing, taxing and regulating other aspects of these markets is what is proposed. This is not "radical", it is just somewhat more sensible than current policies. A genuinely radical alternative would require the decriminalization of all aspects of the recreational drug markets and the voluntary development of alternative deterrents and incentives. That is a proposal for which I don't have time or space (or sufficient knowledge) to develop here and now.

Next (12th paragraph)...
"It is largely accepted that the judicial system in Taiwan is broken."
Unlike the author of this article, I prefer to simply state my opinions on my own two feet without having recourse to self-protecting prefaces like "... it is widely accepted that...". The author's reliance on this kind of unsubstantiated (and probably unsubstantiable) claim irritates me because it is indicative of a mind that does not assume the responsibilities of choosing values itself, but merely refers to the collective hive for appropriate direction. If something is broken, say so. Why wait for everyone else to agree with you before saying so?

Next (13th paragraph)...
"It has become widely accepted that the whole “War on Drugs” has been a failure."
There it is again. Of course if the ostensible purpose of the "War On Drugs" is accepted, then I agree that it has been a clear failure. However, I think that is a naive way of seeing it as this conclusion has been obvious for decades, and indeed, was foreseeable at its' inception due to the failures of previous prohibitions recorded in recent history. What the "War On Drugs" has been very successful at is allowing governments, particularly the U.S. federal government, to excuse a vast expansion of police powers and various forms of rent-seeking in addition to the obvious growth in organized crime. That is merely an observation and it does not entail the claim of orchestration via conspiracy (I am not a Leftist, and I am well aware that Occam's razor is not for shaving!). Ending the "war" on drugs will allow the growth of politicization in new and alternative ways. Whether these alternative policies will "solve" the problems associated with drug use is in many respects a superficial question.

Next (17th paragraph)...
"In conclusion, I would urge people to educate themselves about the facts. I would hope that Taiwan’s decision makers will have the intelligence and strength of character to take positive, science-based steps forward."
Like Karl Popper, I regard the fixation upon the personal characteristics of political "leaders" as an error, and given the material progress of modern civilization, most of which has come through the acquisition and application of knowledge rather than political "leadership", I think the fixation upon leaders and their personalities is a degenerate error. What is instead important is the design of institutions and perfecting our knowledge of their limitations and our own.

I end this brief response by forming a different question. What do the problems associated with drug use tell us about our concepts of human virtue, the soul and aesthetic experience if not that they are seriously impoverished? I suspect that the key to solving those problems and others lies with the Greek "obsession" with learning how to live well.


*"Full disclosure", as the journalists like to say: last night after dinner I drank half a bottle of cheap red wine from the supermarket, but usually I make do with a single bottle of cheap beer.

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