Archive for September, 2010

The Bikecast Episode #39: The War on Drugs and the “Winding Up of Violence”

The war on drugs, like all wars, is actually a war on people. It has an endless list of disastrous and tragic social consequences that reaches to the very heavens. In this episode of the bikecast, I focus on one of the most pernicious and long lasting effects of this type of psychotic state program–what I call the “winding up of violence”.

By applying ever-increasing levels of force in an attempt to control voluntary human interactions, international drug policy weeds out all but the most lunatic element of the black market. It then makes this element very, very, very rich and gives them monopoly on the use of violence over a geographical region (just like their larger counterpart, the state!). Even if the drug war were to end tomorrow, the violence in places like the U.S. – Mexico border will take decades of ongoing human misery to wind down.

Download this episode of the bikecast

Prohibiting commodities of any sort has two effects that I want to concentrate on. First, it tends to remove peaceful, honest business-people from the production and distribution processes. For obvious reasons, most farmers won’t grow that which is illegal and most distributors (pharmacists in many instances related to the drug war) won’t stock illegal products. The exceptions to this tendency are people who don’t have good prospects in the conduct of legal business. People who are already distrusted, who have a tendency toward violent dealings or who otherwise prefer not to rely on the legal market will fill the spots vacated in the newly criminalized market sector.

The greater the degree of prohibition, the more this tendency will increase. At the level of open warfare that exists between the drug cartels and the north and central american states[1], only the most desperate and brutal criminal elements are willing to risk traffic large amounts of product. All but the most casual growers and sellers face threats so large that any reasonable alternative source of income is preferable.

The second effect that I want to look at is that prohibition drives the price of the commodity artificially high because of the new overhead of avoiding or bribing law enforcement and the associated risk of imprisonment and death.

One result of the price increase is that it becomes profitable to grow the market for the illegal substance in a way that it previously was not. If a drug costs a few cents per dose, it’s not (very) profitable to try and get another customer interested in long term use of the drug.

Once the price goes up to dollars or tens of dollars per dose, the seller has a much greater motivation to seek out new customers. Thus the salesman, who formerly served existing customers becomes a “pusher” who gives away free samples and travels from schoolyard to schoolyard attempting to maximize his customer base.

The consequence of price increase that I want to focus on for this discussion is a far more primary effect. Whoever gains control over part of the market for an illegal substance has an artificially inflated source of wealth with which to grow and protect the operation. Again, the greater the effort put into prohibition, the greater the increase in price.

Over time, the interaction of these two factors leads to large, well armed, and ruthless organizations with a steady stream of tremendous wealth. This is what we see today on the us-mexican border, in columbia and afghanistan[2].

These changes have taken place over a period of decades and the misery will continue to escalate in response to further increases in the violence used for prohibition.

The aspect of this dynamic that I focus on in the bikecast is the hangover after the flow of energy to such a system is halted. If the war on drugs was to end tomorrow, the organizations that traffic drugs illegally aren’t going to go away. They will continue to search for ways to exploit their position as the best armed group of thugs in the region in ways that will plague the communities/regions they’ve claimed for years and decades to come.

The longer prohibition escalates, the more wealth and power accrue to the most ruthless of drug organizations, and the longer the period of “wind down” to normalcy will last.

This same phenomenon also occurs in foreign military occupations. In Vietnam, relatively diplomatic and scholarly nationalists seeking independence for French Indochina were imprisoned and suppressed. This left increasingly violent guerrilla leaders as the only opponents of western imperialism. After 30 years of continuous warfare, the peasant armies that carrying antiquated armaments in the 1940s were heavily armed, well trained, and lead by a ruthless political class.

What might have been a bloodless transfer of power to a nationalist government or a minor and short lived civil war in 1945 was instead a bloody internal conflict after the south fell. Violent, radical collectivization and centralized economic control in the hands of the revolutionary leadership lead to untold violence and generated millions of refugees. It’s remarkable, given the degree of brutality with which the vietnamese were treated that they recovered relative stability within a couple of decades.

Currently we’re watching a decade long windup in afghanistan and another in iraq, plus a 20 year windup in somalia and another underway in yemen. The flawed logic of increasing violence until stability is reached is killing not only the present well being, but the future chances of stability in the societies cursed by foreign occupation.

I go into more detail about the winding up of violence (along with a pained analogy) vis à vis foreign wars in a supplementary bikecast that I didn’t like enough to put into the general stream. It’s here if you’d like to listen. This is the intro paragraph for the podcast:

I want to apologize in advance for the analogy in this episode of the bikecast. Every now and then I have to indulge my inner dork. I flesh out the concept of the “winding up of violence” that we talked about in the last bikecast. Much as heat will tend to “even out” throughout a closed system, violence tends to dissipate when the resources energizing it are removed. Violence is expensive and unsustainable and, left in isolation, violent situations quickly flame out as the particpants exhaust themselves and are compelled to seek compromise and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, this winding down cannot begin until the “energy sources” fueling the conflict are removed. Thus on the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as around the world where the United States (and to a far lesser degree other large nation-states) provide weapons, wealth and motivation to violent conflicts, the distance between the current situations and “normalcy” grows larger every day. The longer the winding up of violence, the longer and more painful the winding down.

Download this supplementary bikecast (attached to the above paragraph)

Other excellent resources for recovering drug warriors (there are roughly ∞ of these online, I picked a semi-random handful).
Drug War, What Is It Good For?
Timeline of the Drugwar
America Should Decriminalize Drugs
The Drug War vs. American Civilization (Drug war and civil liberties)
The Eternal Drug War

  1. [1] The United States, obviously, chief among them
  2. [2] And any number of other narco states whose products are shipped to the west.

The Bikecast Episode #38: Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape

This episode of the bikecast is a reaction to a couple of interviews and and articles I’ve read about Dr. Sam Harris. Dr. Harris is a radical figure in a number of ways, he is a strong atheist in the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins vein[1]. Additionally, in what turns out to be an upcoming book, The Moral Landscape, he makes the claim that objective moral rules are “knowable” and can be derived using the tools of science–reason and evidence. For a public figure to hold this position is remarkable and I believe that Dr. Harris will be increasingly important and visible as society moves away from arbitrary and violent “moral” codes and toward civilization.

[Update below]

Download this episode of the bikecast

After hearing about The Moral Landscape in this inteview and then hunting down a number of other media appearances (it was awhile ago, but Sam Harris’ website has a nice listing of them–the TED talk is great), I looked the book up in the University’s library. It wasn’t there, so I sent out a request for an inter-library loan.

Turns out the book doesn’t come out until October. Thanks for not making fun of me, inter-library loan librarian. I think I’ll read and maybe review it upon its publication.

I have some issues with a couple of my first impressions of Dr. Harris’ approach. I’ll leave them for the podcast to elucidate for now, but if you read the interview liked above, you might be able to guess. In the podcast, I also make reference to other examples of secular ethics. Coincidentally, I bumped into this quote earlier today:

In the controversy over man’s nature, and over the broader and more controversial concept of “natural law,” both sides have repeatedly proclaimed that natural law and theology are inextricably intertwined. As a result, many champions of natural law, in scientific or philosophic circles, have gravely weakened their case by implying that rational, philosophical methods alone cannot establish such law: that theological faith is necessary to maintain the concept. On the other hand, the opponents of natural law have gleefully agreed; since faith in the supernatural is deemed necessary to belief in natural law, the latter concept must be tossed out of scientific, secular discourse, and be consigned to the arcane sphere of the divine studies. In consequence, the idea of a natural law founded on reason and rational inquiry has been virtually lost.
The believer in a rationally established natural law must, then, face the hostility of both camps: the one group sensing in this position an antagonism toward religion; and the other group suspecting that God and mysticism are being slipped in by the back door.

This is from The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard, which is a secular approach to ethics. The other major work that I am aware of which approaches the question of ethics directly is Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics by Stephan Molyneux.

As I may get around to covering later, philosophy in general and ethics in particular has historically been a tool to distract humanity from obvious biological inclinations to trust in the orderliness of reality and in the value of cooperation. Most people function, day to day, based on a belief in sensed reality and in the value of not aggressing against strangers. It’s heartening to see that some philosophers and scientists are taking the time to repair the broken framework of ethics, to ground ethical principles in fundamentally sound reason and observation, and return the philosophical endeavor of ethical reasoning to the service of truth and the lovely side-effect of human flourishing.

Update: A friend and longtime fan of Sam Harris pointed out to me that he (Sam Harris) is one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism. I’m all for assertive atheism, but my primary interest in Sam Harris is his promotion of a rationally grounded morality.

  1. [1] Apparently, there’s a good reason Sam Harris reminds me of Hitch and Dawkins–see the update.

The Bikecast Episode #37: The Landscape of Modern Anarchism

Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red [and Gold] unite![1]” — Otto von Bismarck

For reasons I can’t clearly explain, I’m overly interested in the various flavors of anarchism, their origins, and their relationship to one another. I sometimes toy with the idea of sitting down and rigorously mapping out the terrain of the anti-state landscape–though I’m not certain what the value in that would be[2]. This episode of the bikecast is a series of thoughts along this line that I had after meeting up with a handful of anti-authoritarians. I’m intend to go light on the show notes, so check out the podcast if you are interested. I’ve got plenty more thoughts on the matter that I’m happy to express if there’s any interest.

Download this episode of the bikecast

In Texas, most people I’ve met with similar anti-political views as myself come from what I consider “right anarchism.” I’m not entirely sure of this, but I believe that this brand of anarchism comes from the philosophical, individualist tradition of 19th century american thinkers–Henry David Thoreau and Lysander Spooner, for example.

The desirability of statelessness, from this perspective, derives from the inviolable sovereignty of the individual. Nobody has any claim to another person nor to the results of that person’s labor. Since it is immoral to compel someone to act against their will or to seize their justly owned property, the state cannot be a moral institution.

In practice, this position seems to be most frequently achieved by “falling off” of the political spectrum by constitutionalist, small government, and/or minarchists who finally give up on their pet “the state needs to ______” issue.

The other side of the anarchist spectrum (the unsurprisingly named “left anarchists”) are the ideological descendants of the revolutionary movements of the 19th century. This tradition grew from the unrest of the factory worker, coal miner, and tenement dweller and has a more populist flavor to it. In 1872, the revolutionary parties that had been opposing the european aristocracy for 25+ years broke into two camps. The first, the Marxists, became the political socialism/communism that made the 20th century miserable for some several hundred million people (in addition to the millions it killed outright).

The second branch, the anarchists, faded from the political scene–at least compared with the Marxists. They exist today in the form of anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, and a number of schools organized around labor, feminism, environmentalism and other social justice issues.

The central point in the spectrum, it seems to me, are the libertarian left, the agorists, and the mutualists. From my limited experience, this is where the most constructive, civil dialog takes place and the most sustainable ideas end up.

In the time between my recording of the bikecast and the editing/writing up process, a couple related conversations/videos/posts have popped up, so I’ll close with them–they highlight nicely the points of overlap that, I think, are crucial for the eventual growing together of the black, red and gold.

From Center for a Stateless Society: A Libertarian in Solidarity with the Jimmy Johns Workers’ Union

Another C4SS writer, Kevin Carson lays out the mutualist case against corporatism in The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand

And Kevin Carson again, in what I think is a perfectly executed illumination of right anti-state blindspots with regard to the relationship between state and corporation. Robert Higgs responds in the comments and pan-secessionist Keith Preston (from the right-rightiest place on the anti-state spectrum without falling into race or religious supremecy-anarchism) has some great insights in the comments as well.

Lastly a video that’s been making the rounds of late, a call for political unity between libertarians and progressives. An identical case exists on the anti-state side as well:

  1. [1] addition mine. The red refers to the marxist/socialists, the black is the anarchists, and the gold to the modern right-anarchists
  2. [2] and I doubt I could do any better than wikipedia

The Bikecast Episode #36: Spiderwebs for the Rich, Chains for the Poor

Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government.
–Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Confessions of a Revolutionary

Expanding on the previous podcast, this episode focuses on the most conspicuous victims of the law, the poor. No matter how well intentioned a law appears to be, the people imprisoned for its violation are inevitably those that 1. can’t afford legal representation 2. can’t afford to pay the levied fines 3. can’t relocate to avoid being charged or avoid punishment 4. can’t afford to come into compliance and 5. can’t afford to stop breaking the law. In other words, the poor and most vulnerable in society will be the jailed victims of any law.

Download this episode of the bikecast

The advocate of a law, then, is not only advocating violence against strangers in order to enforce their preferences, the targets of the violence they advocate will invariably be poor and politically powerless.

This contention is most easy to see in my punching-bag laws: those regarding drugs and immigration. It is more challenging with regard to laws that “make sense,” in that they criminalize what is widely held to be reckless behavior, such as the seat-belt law I mention in this and the previous podcast.

Yet more challenging are laws that have as stated intention the protection of animals. A good example can be found in this San Francisco law that is supposed to stop the practice of puppy-milling by making pet sells illegal[1].

Always, though, these laws require the crime of threatening limitless violence against human beings. Aside from this basic and irrefutable moral objection, in practice the goal of coercing seat-belt use or closing down puppy mills translates inevitably into incarcerating the poor, and only the poor.

Via POSIWID (defining the purpose of the system as that which the system does), we can say that the purpose of the law in the modern nation state, despite the intentions of individual legislators, police, or court officials, is the incarceration of millions of disempowered people.

Institutions founded on violence, even those related to societal necessities such as social rules, inevitably result in grotesque perversions of their initial intention. Certainly the intention of protecting citizens equally from harm at the hands of other citizens has reached its polar opposite in the case of American “justice.” We see a state of affairs wherein millions of people, who haven’t committed a crime against anybody, have been forced at gunpoint by their fellow citizens into cages where they are kept in isolation for years at at time. Surely this is the opposite of any reasonable definition of justice.

This clear-eyed view of the American legal system–that all laws are violence against humans; and the people, usually strangers, who will be targeted by the law will be uniformly the poor and powerless–can help shield the mind from the ceaseless deluge of state-proposed, violence-backed solutions coming from all manner of media and casual social interactions.

  1. [1] This law is, apparently, still being debated.

The Bikecast Episode #35: The Immoral Basis of all Law

All law, commonly understood, relies on the fact that the state has the “right” to kill you. Law in the modern nation state is based on violence, and that violence, if resisted, will continue to escalate until the law-breaker submits or is dead. The key difference between a state law enforcement official and a citizen/subject is that the official can kill the citizen and it will be widely (and legally) seen as legitimate. Even if the citizen has hurt no one and is not even breaking a state statute, any excuse will be taken as a just cause for the official to have murdered the subject/citizen.

Download this episode of the bikecast

Here are a couple exercises that attempts to create a pinprick in the mind to open it to the idea that the law of the modern nation state is based on violence.

Imagine that I have nothing to lose and am opposed to the US war machine, so I decide I’m not going to fund it anymore. I figure out how much of my taxes are going to the murder and oppression of foreigners (about 40%) and deduct that from the amount I send to the IRS. I also send a note letting them know what I’m doing–I’m polite like that.

There’s a very good chance that I will receive a letter in return. The letter will request that I pay the remaining 40% of my taxes, plus interest, plus fees. If I ignore the letter, I’ll get another, possibly a third increasingly insistent letters, and maybe a visit from an agent or a phone call. At some point, if I continue to refuse to pay, I will be seized by armed people. If I continue to resist, the violence will escalate until I am dead or unconscious. If I’ve been killed in the exchange, it will be “legal,” meaning that no one will be held accountable for my murder.

No matter the outcome, I will be made to pay. If I’m killed while resisting in the process, that is not a problem for the state. They will take my possessions after I am dead.

Here’s another one, from a conversation with a friend. He brought up the seat belt law as the best example of a harmless and probably beneficial law. I ran through an exercise parallel to the one above: I’m driving without a seat belt and and somebody flashes lights at me and orders me to pull over. If I refuse to do so, I will be stopped by any means necessary. If I’m murdered in the attempt to stop my car, the killer will go free because I resisted his attempt to ticket me for my seat belt[1].

Again, I will be stopped and ticketed, no matter the cost to me–even for something as silly as not wearing a seat belt. This law, like all others, rests on the immoral use of aggressive violence against me–even if I’m harming no one.

Of course, very few of us, especially after a childhood chock full of obedience training, will resist authority figures in this way.

Alisa came up with a more realistic seat belt example. Imagine I am flat broke and have just landed a job 20 miles from my residence. I’m not on a bus route, but I manage to get ahold of a car. Now say that the car doesn’t have seatbelts or that they’re broken or even that I forget to buckle up by accident one day. If I’m pulled over and get a ticket, it sets off a long series of life altering events. If I can’t pay the ticket, my license will be suspended. Without a license, I’ll eventually be ticketed again. Unless, at some point, I can pay the tickets, a warrant will be sworn out for me and I will have to go to prison (or die resisting).

This leads to another pernicious result of the immoral basis of law: most people are caught up and exposed to state violence as a result of their poverty. The rest of us are able, at least under certain circumstances, to submit and then spend our way out of trouble. We will expand on this point in the next bikecast.

We are repeatedly educated about the framework that allows these unfortunate circumstances to be avoided. The mind, when going through such a story, fictional or otherwise, leaps at every opportunity to highlight a path to a safe, submissive resolution. If we obey commands from public officials, pay what we’re told to pay, are quiet when we’re told to be quiet, follow the law, cooperate, and are courteous, then we’re fairly likely, assuming we’re not poor or ethnic, to get through life without encountering the business end of a police weapon.

That this is possible doesn’t have any bearing on the claim that the law is based solely on violence–it’s simply an indication of how desperate both rulers and subjects are to avoid a general awareness of that reality.

  1. [1] Assuming the guy with the flashing lights has a shield shaped chunk of metal and is on a list of authorized killers.