Sampling Error

If you can take it or leave it, and they outlaw it, you’re mostly going to leave it. Unless it’s clear you’re going to get away with it, and no one will find out you did it, and even then you’ll think twice about it.

If you’re hooked, however, you’ll keep taking the risk until you get caught. And you’ll take other risks to keep from getting caught, since getting caught not only involves punishment (bad) but the authorities forcibly preventing you from doing whatever you’re hooked on (slightly worse than a large asteroid strike). You’ll take other risks to replace the supply lines the authorities keep cutting off. Generally, you’ll do a lot of things that seem really stupid and crazy to people who aren’t hooked and rank life, health, liberty, duty, and self-respect higher than your vice. Odds are you were always willing to do crazy and stupid things to feel good in the short term; it just never proved necessary to put quite so much of your stupidity and craziness on display before the authorities went and outlawed your favorite short-term joy.

And the authorities will catch people who persist in whatever it is they’ve outlawed, and they’ll notice that the people they catch keep showing up with records of doing crazy and stupid things. They’ll reach the conclusion that it’s a damn good thing our legislators outlawed it, because just look at what it does to people. And they’ll notice that the murder rate has gone up lately, and a lot of the perpetrators and victims are involved in this forbidden activity (because there’s money in it and because, of course, they tend to be crazy and stupid enough to continue an unhealthy habit that’s been outlawed), and of course the only thing that we can do to Protect Our Families and maintain Law and Order is to increase the penalties and step up enforcement.

This will convince the more reasonable and intelligent of the addicts to do what it takes to quit, or at least to come up with better ways to not get caught, and they don’t come to the attention of the authorities anymore. The authorities then declare the problem is Getting Worse because the addicts they catch have gotten crazier and stupider. And the murder rate is still outrageously high. And the crazier and stupider addicts have gotten hold of something even worse than the evil stuff that originally motivated the whole effort. (Because, if you’re taking more risk and paying more to get it, you want something with more of a kick to it to compensate, and the risk you’re willing to tolerate in the process goes up with the risk you’re already taking in the first place).

It’s about this time that some people look at the situation, notice that the present legislation together with its enhancements has not produced any actual improvements, and suggest dropping the whole thing and letting idiots suffer in peace. This advice was actually followed in 1933, followed by an impressive decline in the overall homicide rate. But sometimes, reason does not prevail, the sampling bias is ignored, and the authorities gasp in horror and exclaim “Are you crazy? Look at what it does to people! And it keeps getting worse! If we didn’t outlaw it, everybody would end up hooked on it! There wouldn’t be enough non-addicts left to keep society going! The barbarian mindless hordes would overrun and destroy society within hours!” All without pausing to wonder whether the people that they’re hauling in now, the people stupid and crazy enough to start and continue a self-destructive habit in the face of draconian penalties and ever more stringent enforcement, are in fact a representative sample of the public at large.

Theodore Dalrymple, who is remarkably free of illusions about just how stupid and crazy people can be, makes this sort of error in arguing against drug legalization. He uses the following anecdote to try to cast doubt on the notion that most people are not stupid and crazy enough to start destroying their irreplacable brains with drugs if the law permitted them to:

“I have personal experience of this effect. I once worked as a doctor on a British government aid project to Africa. We were building a road through remote African bush. The contract stipulated that the construction company could import, free of all taxes, alcoholic drinks from the United Kingdom. These drinks the company then sold to its British workers at cost, in the local currency at the official exchange rate, which was approximately one-sixth the black-market rate. A liter bottle of gin thus cost less than a dollar and could be sold on the open market for almost ten dollars. So it was theoretically possible to remain dead drunk for several years for an initial outlay of less than a dollar.

Of course, the necessity to go to work somewhat limited the workers’ consumption of alcohol. Nevertheless, drunkenness among them far outstripped anything I have ever seen, before or since. I discovered that, when alcohol is effectively free of charge, a fifth of British construction workers will regularly go to bed so drunk that they are incontinent both of urine and feces.”

Of course he discovered nothing of the sort. What he discovered is that a fifth of British construction workers who could be lured to a construction project in the ass-end of nowhere by an unlimited supply of nearly free booze turned out to be frighteningly hard-core alcoholics. (Shocking, isn’t it?) I don’t see how he could seriously conclude that this was representative of the way normal people would behave if unlimited supplies of nearly free alcohol became available everywhere. He trots out, and demolishes, other explanations for this “surprising” phenomenon:

“The heavy drinking occurred not because of the isolation of the African bush: not only did the company provide sports facilities for its workers, but there were many other ways to occupy oneself there. Other groups of workers in the bush whom I visited, who did not have the same rights of importation of alcoholic drink but had to purchase it at normal prices, were not nearly as drunk. And when the company asked its workers what it could do to improve their conditions, they unanimously asked for a further reduction in the price of alcohol, because they could think of nothing else to ask for.

The conclusion was inescapable: that a susceptible population had responded to the low price of alcohol, and the lack of other effective restraints upon its consumption, by drinking destructively large quantities of it. The health of many men suffered as a consequence, as did their capacity for work; and they gained a well-deserved local reputation for reprehensible, violent, antisocial behavior.”

Yeah, and this susceptible population was drawn from all over Britain by selecting those willing to travel thousands of miles and work in the boonies for nearly free booze. That’s about as susceptible a population as one can possibly imagine. Of course they’re going to behave differently from people who responded to other inducements. Of course they’re going to consider more and cheaper alcohol the most important thing in the world… that’s why they were there in the first place!

“It is therefore perfectly possible that the demand for drugs, including opiates, would rise dramatically were their price to fall and their availability to increase”

Yeah, and it’s perfectly possible that all the planet’s jihadis will see the error of their ways and convert to Quakerism were we to impeach the offensive cowboy and humbly beg their forgiveness for the awful crime of buying oil from their countries and giving the accursed Jews some nifty tools to resist extermination, but I haven’t seen any evidence that leads me to expect either cause-and-effect relationship to obtain.

4 thoughts on “Sampling Error”

  1. Point of clarification. Without conceding anything for or against Dalrymple, didn’t severe alcoholism fall dramatically during Prohibition and increase after its Repeal?

  2. How about the simple lesson that if you subsidize something, expect usage to go up. I don’t know how this compares to a situation where the government has no control over the pricing and can not tax them like alcohol in the real world.
    Also, I wonder what time period he is speaking about. Less than $1 for a liter of gin is rediculously inexpensive. Nowadays, even less than $1 for a liter of beer would be a great buy(assuming decent beer).
    Some random notes while reading (apologies if not coherent, I am running out of time before leaving work)
    “no man is an island”, neglects to mention laws that cover real abuse or the opposite rationale of punishing now legal emotional neglect.
    a priori condemation of necrophilia. He doesn’t really defend this prohibition, just assumes that it is wrong. Also calls it public, yet requires voluntary participation, not public as on a public street. I suppose this is an obscenity type of argument, which although I can understand some limits, I have a hard time actually justifying it. Unhealthy to passers-by at least violates Mill’s theory.
    Forgot to mention our precious bodily fluids.
    legalization == “publicly sanctioned self-indulgence [as] its highest good”???
    I personally would not handle all drugs in the same way as alcohol. At least in the near term many of the stronger drugs should be handled through doctors as are other strong medications.
    The illegality of stealing cars is what creates the extra violence around stealing cars, not merely taking the car. There are also other factors in the drug trade that do not correspond in the car theft model, like the users themselves needing to commit crime to afford it. I think you covered that one.
    Amsterdam tacitly decriminalized one drug. The fact that others are available and there is still crime has no bearing. Also, noone says that legalization will eliminate crime.
    Overstates how cheap drugs would need to be to reduce crime. Although cigarette smuggling is not unheard of, at best it is depriving the state of some income and nothing more. I guess I am assuming that there is not a need to violently protect that racket. I haven’t heard of many gun battles over cigarette smuggling turf or with revenuers.
    So opium is going to be so cheap that people won’t be able to help themselves, yet expensive enough that the black market will be able to profit off it… right.. Drugs will be cheap and available for anyone to afford, yet people will still need a black market and to steal for it.. I suppose he doesn’t understand black market prices are almost always higher than more normalized legal prices.
    Too bad I am not liberal, else I’d be able to tease a charge of racism about Somalis not doing a good day’s work. Hey don’t those Somalis know that amphetamines is a much more attractive drug! :P
    “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” assumes you have been beating your wife. What does “Is the war against drugs being won?” assume?
    Doesn’t mention good education instead of propaganda, separation of soft core users from hard core dealers.

    Sorry for wasting your time.

    The figures are inexact, what they point to is a fall in scirrosis findings in hospitals. I don’t remember it being called dramatic, though. I also wonder whether a sever alcoholic would have gone to a hospital during prohibition as redily, though I don’t put much on this argument.

  3. I’d guess that owing to the low quality and high contamination of much of the available supply of alcohol under Prohibition (“rotgut”, anyone?), a chronic alcoholic would be significantly more likely to die of, say, methanol poisoning before cirrhosis could develop, than he would under conditions of legal alcohol and regulated manufacturers. This factor could explain any fall in reported incidents of cirrhosis.

    By analogy we might expect that legalization of narcotics would result in an increase in total users but a fall in total deaths, due to an increase in quality and in reliability of dosages. (Currently, many ODs result from users taking a dose that is far more concentrated than they are used to; post-legalization we could expect concentrations to be clearly displayed, the way the percentage of alcohol in a bottle of wine is).

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