Monday, December 7, 2009

Chasing the Dragon

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a functional definition of insanity.  So why does our government continue to pursue policies that fail?  It could be that some bad public policies, such as Prohibition, the War on (some) Drugs, and the 21 drinking age are simply addictive.  But how exactly can failure be addictive?

The answer lies in the fact that several of these policies began with at least perceived success.  Prohibition, for example, coincided with a large decrease in alcohol consumption in the first year or two.  The 21 drinking age coincided with reduced drunk driving fatalities in the 1980s.  And it occurred in both cases despite little to no enforcement.  Whether or not the relationship was causal is immaterial to the government's perception of success.  For Prohibition, alcohol consumption (and its attendant social problems) began rebounding after the first two years, and by 1929 consumption reached at least 70% of pre-Prohibition levels, possibly even 100% by some estimates.  Even during the Great Depression, it continued to rise, albeit at slower rate.  Enforcement increased dramatically, but it could not duplicate or prolong the initial, temporary "success" the government was now hooked on.  Most scholars agree that Prohibition did more harm than good, and most Americans agree as well.

For the 21 drinking age, there were numerous confounding factors that likely explain the fatality decline better, especially since it occurred in Canada as well, who did not raise the drinking age to 21.  But numerous studies still claim that raising the drinking age was causally linked, and the effects occurred largely at a time during which enforcement was weak.  Miron and Tetelbaum (2009), however, find that was not the case, at least not in the long run.  By separating out states that raised it voluntarily (before 1984) from those who were coerced by the feds in 1984-1988, a striking pattern was discovered.  After controlling for numerous confounders and secular trends, it was observed that states that raised the age voluntarily did see a small lifesaving effect, but it was only temporary, lasting no more than 1-2 years. Kind of like Prohibition, though this time the rebound was masked by confounders and secular trends.  The coerced states, however, saw no lifesaving effect, and in many states it merely threw gasoline on the fire.  A similar pattern was seen for high school drinking and "binge" drinking rates as well.  And in all states, increasing enforcement over time does not appear to have any noticeable correlation.  In other words, the idea that raising the drinking age somehow saved lives and continues to do so was nothing more than a mirage.  Of course, this should come as no surprise to those who study history, or know anything about young people, but I guess we can't expect the government to do so.

In addition, another addictive aspect of these policies is actually the oldest addiction of all:  POWER.  Policies like Prohibition and the drinking age inevitably give more power to any government that enacts them.  And once they experience it, they cannot seem to get enough.  This further reinforces the pursuit of unattainable success that characterizes the various prohibitions on consensual activities throughout history.  It is also no accident that the targets of enforcement tend to be the least powerful members of society.
It's time to stop chasing the dragon.  You are never going to catch it.

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