Academic journal article Independent Review

Dynamics of Intervention in the War on Drugs: The Buildup to the Harrison Act of 1914

Academic journal article Independent Review

Dynamics of Intervention in the War on Drugs: The Buildup to the Harrison Act of 1914

Article excerpt

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 is widely viewed in the scholarly literature as the beginning of the U.S. government's war on drugs (Miron and Zwiebel 1995; Benson and Rasmussen 1997; Libby 2006; Francis and Mauser 2011; McNamara 2011). An essay by Peter Boettke, Christopher Coyne, and Abigail Hall (2013) is an exception that dates the war's start to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. However, the problems that the Harrison Act was intended to address can be directly traced to the unintended consequences of antidrug policies adopted by state governments and the federal government in the nineteenth century. This paper documents these nineteenth-century antidrug policies and uses an economic theory of the dynamics of intervention to explain how these policies led to the adoption of the Harrison Act. These nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century policies represent the beginning of the U.S. government's war on drugs.

With the notable exception of a book by Mark Thornton (1991), the literature on the drug war largely fails to recognize and explain the dynamic nature of the interventions in the war on drugs. The literature on the legislation and outcomes of the period leading up to the Harrison Act, written primarily within the history and medical professions, falls short in explaining how the Harrison Act came about because it does not have a suitable economic framework to interpret the events. (1)

We utilize the theory of intervention developed by Ludwig von Mises ([1940] 1998) and then built upon by F. A. Hayek (1945, [1944] 2007), Sanford Ikeda (1997), and others to explain the evolution of drug laws leading up to the Harrison Act, and, in doing so, we are able to address and utilize insights from David Musto (1973), Edward Brecher (1972), and David Courtwright ([1982] 2001) in a cohesive, not contradictory, manner. This theory allows us to explain how policy X implemented at time t affected the decision to implement policy Y at time t + 1.

Each government intervention into the market impacts the information and incentives of a wide variety' of market participants who often have goals other than and sometimes contrary to those of the policy makers. But, as Mises states, "interventionism is not an economic system ... it is not a method which enables people to achieve their aims" ([1940] 1998, 78). Because information is dispersed across the economy often in the form of tacit knowledge (Hayek 1945), policy makers cannot fully anticipate, unless they are omniscient, how the changed information and incentives of market participants will ripple through the market and create secondary consequences that policy makers consider undesirable. When these consequences reveal themselves, policy makers have a choice of repealing their prior intervention or creating an additional intervention to deal with the undesirable consequences. When they choose the latter, "it will only be a matter of time before new, negative consequences of the new intervention manifest themselves--at which point they will be facing a replay of the previous choice" (Kurrild-Klitgaard 2005, 5). Intervention also distorts the discovery process for entrepreneurs (Kirzner 1985). The opportunity set available to entrepreneurs also changes with interventions, and they respond accordingly (Martin 2011, 352). Intervention stifles discovery that would have found ways to serve consumer desires if entrepreneurs had had more freedom to experiment. It also creates superfluous discovery, which takes place when entrepreneurs come upon new business ideas that exist only because of an intervention that made it uneconomical to serve consumers' desires in other ways. To summarize explanations offered by Mises ([1940] 1998) and Hayek ([1944] 2007), once the road of intervention is chosen, movement along it will only continue because unintended consequences will continue to manifest with each attempt to correct the previous problems. The only way to get off this road is to begin rolling back or undoing previous interventions and allow the market to sort itself out. …

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