Tag Archives: interventionism

Portugal’s Experiment in Drug Decriminalization Has Been a Success


This month, Portugal celebrates fourteen years of drug decriminalization. The grand experiment is now considered a happy success considering it was adopted out of desperation and in the face of dire warnings from proponents of the global drug war.

What Led to Decriminalization

During the mid-twentieth century, Portugal experienced fifty years of military dictatorship, and when leftist democratic control was reestablished in 1974, many expatriate Portuguese returned to Portugal from its colonies. Of course, many of these people were dissidents, outsiders, and outcasts, and many of them used illegal drugs.

Over the next twenty-five years, there was a surge in drug use, drug abuse, addiction, overdoses, and eventually a very substantial prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other dirty-needle-related diseases. At the peak of this drug epidemic the rate of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS infection was “considerably higher” than the rest of Europe according to Dr. João Goulão, the longtime drug czar of Portugal.

Goulão was on the eleven member anti-drug commission that formulated law 30/2000 which decriminalized all drugs starting July 1, 2001.

The “grand experiment” seems to be the result of two factors. The first is that Portugal is a relatively poor European country and was unable to fight the war on drugs on every front.

The second factor is that the commission was relatively non-partisan and simply adopted the common sense notion that drug abuse and addiction are not criminal problems for the police to solve. Drug abuse and addiction are medical and psychological problems that are better solved by the individual with the help of professionals and social pressures.

Baby Steps Away from the Drug War

Decriminalization is just one baby step away from the war on drugs, and drug smugglers and dealers are still sought out and punished. Individuals are only permitted to possess very small amounts of illegal drugs without being punished as a dealer. Under current laws, you can still be arrested and sent to counselors, but you do not face imprisonment unless you are an uncooperative multiple offender.

While certainly not ideal, decriminalization has straightforward benefits over complete prohibition. First, otherwise law-abiding citizens will not be criminalized for possessing illegal drugs. Second, drug addicts will be more likely to seek professional help when government treats addiction as a medical rather than criminal problem. Third, the police will have more resources to address real crimes and possibly to provide subsidies for drug treatment programs. Fourth, drug addicts will turn away from dangerous synthetic drug substitutes and turn more to the natural illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Fifth, if needles are legal too, then you should see fewer cases of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Sixth, junkie ghettos will shrink in size and visibility. In sum, decriminalization should result in fewer people dying and being sent to prison and more people living “normal” lives.

Of course, the biggest concern prior to decriminalization was the quantity of illegal drugs consumed. That concern is even more dominant when discussing outright legalization of drugs. Back when Portugal was considering decriminalization, I was interviewed by the “Time Magazine of Portugal,” and the reporter stressed that this was the prime concern in Portugal at the time. I responded that you cannot know the answer to that question in advance, that you will never know the answer to that question, and that the question was unimportant.

Too many factors impact the markets for illegal drugs to be able to say definitively that drug consumption will increase or decrease after decriminalization. Factually, statistics on drug consumption are necessarily imprecise. This is true for statistics prior to and after decriminalization. The existing statistics are based either on things like surveys and educated guesswork with the actual facts mired in the secretive world of the black market. Consumption aside, the real question is whether prohibition does more harm than decriminalization and the answer is yes.

When I was pressed by the reporter for a guess, I responded that overall consumption would not change much; it might increase some in the short run and would decrease in the long run, unless the drugs were legalized in the future for medical or recreational uses. However, I stressed that there are undeniable benefits (listed above) and there is no reason that consumption would explode due to decriminalization.

Many Still Refuse to See the Success

It is hard to blame the Portuguese for their concerns at that time. Decriminalization was considered a dangerous experiment and a dodge of the United Nations’ rules of the global war on drugs. However, mainstream drug policy experts remained “skeptical” of the Portuguese experiment even after nearly eight years of experience.

Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA, claims that Portugal was an unrealistic model. Peter Reuter, another leading drug policy expert, claimed that despite achieving its central goal (decreased consumption) it could be explained by the fact that Portugal was a small country and that drug abuse is cyclical in nature.

Remarkably, Dr. Goulão, who helped design and oversee the new law seems uninformed and perplexed at the positive outcomes even to this very day. He was recently quoted as saying: “it’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we have seen.”

One picture that sums up the Portuguese success story shows that Portugal has the second lowest death rate from illegal drugs in all of Europe after experiencing one of the worst rates with prohibition.

Drugs Rarely Kill Anyone in Portugal

It is also interesting to note that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is headquartered in Lisbon. One analyst who works at EMCDDA, Frank Zobel, calls Portugal’s policy “the greatest innovation in this field” and “that the policy is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that’s a very good outcome.”

It is a happy anniversary for the Portuguese, but a scary one for all the drug warriors around the world whose incomes and power depend on continued ignorance about the effects of prohibition.



Source: Mises

The Pope Should Listen to Tom Woods

The release of the encyclical Laudato Si by Pope Francis last week had the predictable result of winning the Pontiff plaudits and huzzahs in the world’s press, and another round of bewildered head-shaking among observant Catholics. Whether in his formal remarks or his off-the-cuff observations, Pope Francis repeats many of the common objections to (and caricatures of) the market economy, objections we might encounter in the writings of any of the leftist thinkers who dominate the Pope’s Jesuit order.

Meanwhile, so-called progressives in the Church, not normally so deferential to authority, triumphantly proclaim that matters of economics have been definitively settled and that the faithful ought to shut up and obey.

The antidote to all this, released just this year, is the tenth anniversary edition of Tom Woods’s book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, which won first prize in the books division of the Templeton Enterprise Awards shortly after its release a decade ago.

Tom’s thesis and its rapid spread have put Church liberals almost hysterically on the defensive — be sure to read Tom’s entertaining and relentless takedown of a left-wing Catholic conference warning the faithful of the terrible dangers of libertarianism — and has blasted open a discussion that progressives have been so eager to insist is closed. Before I explain what makes this book especially original, unique, and valuable, let me note that what it contains is of the greatest interest and importance no matter what, if any, religious convictions the reader may hold. It is the perfect book to read between Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson on the one hand and advanced Austrian treatises like Mises’s Human Action and Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, on the other.

Tom begins by explaining praxeology, the Austrian method of economics, and shows how Austrians derive the concept of costs, value scales, supply and demand schedules, and the law of diminishing marginal utility, all from the simple proposition that human beings act, and that they use scarce means to substitute a more preferable for a less preferable state of affairs. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how Austrians employ the “action axiom” to arrive at robust economic conclusions, you’ll understand after reading this chapter.

The rest of the book covers a vast array of topics, the misunderstanding of which has led to gross moral confusion: labor unions, wage rates, the “just price,” banking, money, inflation, business cycles, interest, monopoly, foreign aid, the welfare state, distributism, and a great deal more. The tenth anniversary edition contains a new introduction and an extra chapter. That extra chapter amounts to an overall defense of the book’s thesis, and takes the form of a systematic reply to a critic you almost feel sorry for.

In other words, the book makes an extremely vigorous and persuasive case for Austrian economics as a science and the market economy as an economic system. I guarantee you will be better able to defend both after reading it, and that you’ll enjoy every page of Tom’s unrelenting presentation.

When the book came out, it caused instant controversy. Catholic leftists and even some traditionalists denounced it. But Tom had plenty of supporters, among them Fr. Martin Rhonheimer of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome; Crisis magazine; Fordham University’s James Lothian (writing inHomiletic and Pastoral Review); Bill Luckey, chairman of the department of economics at Christendom College; Sam Bostaph, chairman of the department of economics at the (conservative Catholic) University of Dallas; and even a scholar who had a hand in drafting a previous papal encyclical.

The key thesis of the book that caused controversy among Catholics, the majority of whom never read the book and caricatured its argument, was as follows. A Catholic looks to the Church on matters of faith and morals. The technical details of particular academic disciplines, on the other hand, lie beyond the Church’s competence.

For example, whether a particular medicine works or has side effects of varying degrees of intensity is a matter for physicians and medical researchers to say. If this medicine can be produced only by tearing the hearts out of living human beings, the Church may of course say that the use of the medicine is morally unacceptable.

The Church may say that church architecture ought to draw the mind toward the contemplation of God, and be built in such a way as to stand the test of time. But churchmen would be going beyond their competence to describe the technical methods that are most suitable for this purpose.

Likewise, it is all well and good to say that the welfare of the family, the building block of society, is of great importance. It is quite another to take sides regarding the precise, technical means of securing that welfare, as if the edifice of economic reasoning of the past 200 years did not exist. Demands for a “living wage” would of course be destructive to the family.

Tom’s uncomprehending critics pounced. How dare Woods insist that the Church may not speak on economic matters! But Tom was not saying that at all, as we’ve already seen. There’s no reason Church authorities cannot make general statements about moral issues that happen to intersect with economics. What Tom did say — quite correctly, of course — was that the qualitative propositions of economic science, being facts of reality, lie conceptually beyond moral critique.

In other words, if wage rates rise in a particular way, no amount of moral exhortation can make them rise another way. If the constraints of a finite world mean we can enjoy A only at the expense of B, no amount of pious mockery of the market system can eliminate this brute fact. We don’t condemn Avogadro’s number, or set down moral exhortations to change it.

Some of the traditional Catholics who now object to Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si were first in line to condemn The Church and the Market for its alleged dissent from other papal encyclicals. But the grounds on which these Catholics object to Laudato Si are in good measure the ones on which Tom pointed out difficulties with earlier documents. If we begin with faulty presuppositions drawn from misunderstandings of secular disciplines, any subsequent moral reasoning based on them is sure to be equally distorted. Quadragesimo Anno (1931) of Pius XI could look at the Great Depression and blame it on greed, and even the otherwise conservative Benedict XVI responded to more recent economic problems with what Tom has called “platitudinous warnings about materialism and greed.” As Tom wonders in the book, why is there no room in all this moral reckoning for even one mention of the moral problems of central banking?

Developed thoroughly in The Church and the Market, Tom applied this analysis to Pope Paul VI’sPopulorum Progressio (1967), which highlighted poor living conditions in the developing world. He jumped from a perfectly natural desire to improve those conditions to the wild non sequitur that state-led development aid programs, funded by the West, were the solution. He further expressed his belief in the Singer-Prebisch thesis, that a secular decline in the terms of trade — e.g., that the prices of commodities, which Third World countries tended to produce, were moving downward, while manufactured goods, produced by more advanced countries, saw their prices on the rise — meant that a liberalization of international trade couldn’t solve the developing world’s problems.

At the time, economist Peter Bauer was warning in vain against development-aid programs. First, he said, they are unnecessary: if poverty were really a vicious circle, every country would still be in the Stone Age. When the right cultural attitudes and political and economic conditions are in place, funding for domestic projects will freely flow from abroad. Second, these programs would lead to bloodshed, as antagonistic groups clawed at each other for a share of the grant money. Such violence did indeed occur in about a dozen countries. Third, these programs subsidize evil, by allowing vicious government thugs to continue their destructive predations without having to face their full economic consequences.

All of these predictions by Bauer came true as spectacularly as one could ask for. Even the New York Times, international agencies, and the Clinton administration were at last forced, albeit reluctantly, to admit that the programs had been a grotesque failure. But who, they pleaded — as if Peter Bauer had never existed — could have known?

Even the empirical grounding of Paul VI’s case crumbled in the face of closer examination. Subsequent research found that there had been no secular decline in the terms of trade after all, so the major basis on which Paul VI proceeded to base his moral judgments was simply incorrect — a perfect illustration of Tom’s warning about the fate of moral judgments with which potentially faulty empirical claims or scientific understanding are intertwined.

Tom notes that this embarrassment could have been avoided easily enough, had Paul VI enunciated general principles, as opposed to trying to pinpoint precise technical solutions on a matter on which he personally possessed no expertise, and to which the authority Catholics ascribe to the pope did not extend.

Tom first explored this topic all the way back in 2002, in a paper for the Mises Institute. When the feedback was enthusiastic, he decided to write a whole book on the subject. We invited him to deliver our Lou Church Lecture in Religion and Economics in 2004, and his book was published the following year.

Now Tom has written a dozen books, to be sure, ranging from The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which spent a dozen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sent both the neocons and the establishment into a frenzy — Tom’s book was the subject of a signed editorial on the New York Timeseditorial page — and Meltdown, Tom’s 2009 bestseller, featuring a foreword by Ron Paul, that diagnosed the financial crisis from an Austrian, free-market perspective.

But in terms of his most lasting contributions to Austrian or libertarian thought, The Church and the Marketis Tom’s masterpiece. It has forever changed the nature of the discussion of Catholic social teaching, and it ranks among the most compelling and effective short presentations of the ideas of Austrian economics I have encountered. Treat yourself to a copy of this vigorous polemic.



Source: Mises