Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Acknowledging the Irrational

At the centre of classical economics is the notion that man is a rational decision maker. Thus, economics is all about creating incentives. If you lower taxes, people will have more money to spend and the economy will become a virtuous cycle. But the "dead money" sitting atop the Canadian economy gives the lie to the notion that man always makes rational decisions.

Worse still, the only explanation classical economics has for unemployment is that it is a moral failure. The unemployed simply have not taken advantage of economic incentives. Shipping jobs overseas, or bringing in temporary foreign workers to replace the already employed has nothing to do with unemployment.

The same model of man as rational decision maker applies to Canadian Conservative drug policy. Create stiffer penalties for drug use, and it will decline. It's called the War on Drugs and it's been going on in the United States for forty years and filling American prisons beyond capacity.

The problem with Conservative drug policy is the same as its problem with economic policy. Man does not always make rational decisions. Devon Black writes:

The philosophy behind this approach to drug policy blends overly-simplistic thinking with moral judgments and a fundamental misunderstanding of addiction. In theory, harsh penalties for drug trafficking and drug use should have a deterrent effect. Alongside tough drug penalties come government campaigns which teach that drugs are a choice – one it’s possible to “just say no” to. And so any rational person, understanding the consequences of drug use, would obviously choose to stay away.

The fatal flaw, of course, is the assumption that everyone will respond to the same incentives. The whole nature of addiction is that addicts keep seeking out the focus of their craving, no matter the consequences. It’s not a matter of choice; addicts can no more say no to drugs than I can say no to the flu. Trying to change the behaviour of a person suffering from addiction by creating more consequences is an exercise in futility.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, for many heavy drug users, drug use does have a twisted rationality. There’s a strong correlation between experiencing trauma and developing problems with substance abuse. For teens with post-traumatic stress disorder, the problem is particularly acute: Up to 59 per cent of them go on to develop problems with substance abuse. When there’s no adequate mental health care available, it’s little wonder that many people coping with the after-effects of trauma turn to illegal drugs to manage their pain.

And so, while throwing drug users in jail might seem like a solution on the surface, it only compounds the problem. Eighty per cent of offenders have substance abuse or addiction problems. Prisons have tried to address this – primarily by introducing methadone replacement therapy for inmates with opioid addictions.

We have a self-fulfilling prophecy. The War on Drugs is one of the causes of the problem it seeks to eradicate. The fatal flaw in Conservative ideology is its failure to acknowledge the irrational. And the solutions it proposes become, by extension, irrational.


Toby said...

Do a Google search for fanaticism and the alliance church and see what comes up first.

Owen Gray said...

Andrew Nikiforuk's piece in the Tyee -- which I had read before -- is instructive, Toby.

Unless you believe what Harper and his fellow congregants believe you're lost.

Anonymous said...

Aldous Huxley points out in his book 'The Doors of Perception' that most cultures embrace some form of reality altering drugs. He also states that it is natural for humans to desire this altered state from time to time. Soma anyone?

But this from the guy who dropped acid on his death bed ;)

Owen Gray said...

Huxley provided us with a cautionary tale, Anon. The fact that his own life was a cautionary tale does not negate the value of his insight.

Anonymous said...

"The fact that his own life was a cautionary tale does not negate the value of his insight."

I think Huxley's life was not a cautionary tale, but rather a tale of enlightenment told by a visionary.

Owen Gray said...

I agree, Anon, that Huxley was a visionary. But one usually pays a price for foresight.

Anonymous said...

"But one usually pays a price for foresight."

Sometimes entry into the theatre is worth the price of admission.

Owen Gray said...

True, Anon. But sometimes -- as in the case of Prometheus -- the consequences can be long and painful.