Schlosser Offers Antidote to Reefer Madness
by Ari Armstrong, May 20, 2004
Eric Schlosser struck me as a hell of a nice guy, and one deeply concerned with seeing justice done. Unfortunately, he also fails to understand the free market, and his vague neo-Marxist sentiments lead him to advocate some policies that in fact undermine justice.
Yet where Schlosser directs much of his energy is chronicling the horrors of U.S. drug policy. On this issue, his political philosophy does not distract from his journalistic work. Schlosser spoke at the Boulder Barnes&Noble on May 18 to discuss his book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. The book compiles three essays about marijuana, illegal immigrants, and pornography. His previous book is Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, and he is currently working on a book about American prisons. I picked up his two books at the event, though I haven't had a chance to read them yet, so here I discuss only his remarks in Boulder.
Schlosser said that, in writing about America's huge underground economy, he is actually addressing the mainstream. The black market touches each of us in many ways, from the friends we see arrested to the food we eat, and of course the black market is bound up with popular politics.
The underground economy, which Schlosser describes as "all those economic transactions that are unreported, unrecorded, or somehow in violation of the law," constitutes 8-10% of GDP, by conservative estimates. The IRS reports $1.5 trillion in income goes unreported each year, and that excludes the proceeds of (otherwise) criminal activity. The illegal marketplace is "vast, enormous," Schlosser said, and it's been getting larger since the 1970s.
"The lines between the black market and the mainstream... shift," Schlosser noted. Marijuana, which remains completely illegal under some level of legislation everywhere in the nation (leading to fights over federalism and local control), is one of the largest, if not the largest, cash crop in the U.S. Meanwhile, pornography, once largely an underground commodity, now is a huge legal industry. And gambling, once illegal almost everywhere in the nation, is now conducted by many state legislatures (to the detriment of the poor, Schlosser argued).
Schlosser believes the illegality of marijuana cannot be explained by the properties of the drug. "I use a much more dangerous drug recreationally, which is alcohol," he said. "It's a poison... it's very toxic." He pointed out alcohol must be consumed in large quantities for intoxication, and this can lead to severe damage of the body. Around 100,000 deaths annually can be attributed to alcohol, a drug also linked to "all kinds of anti-social, destructive effects."
Of course, marijuana is not innocuous: "Logic would dictate breathing smoke deeply into your lungs... is probably not good for you." (Of course, smoking marijuana is not the only way to consume it.) Particularly the young, those with a history of mental illness, and pregnant women should not smoke marijuana, Schlosser urged. Still, it's relatively non-toxic, and there has been "no known fatal dose of marijuana." And, of course, marijuana also has many health benefits for some ill users.
"Given the remarkably low toxicity... some of the penalties you can receive are extraordinary," Schlosser remarked. He then recounted several stories of harsh felony convictions and multi-year prison sentences handed down for marijuana use. "How did we get to a point where some marijuana users [receive] harsher sentences than some murderers?" Schlosser wondered.
Mostly poor blacks and poor Hispanics are busted for marijuana violations, Schlosser said, even though marijuana use among these groups is not disproportionately higher. Schlosser believes the marijuana laws "have very little to do with the plant... and more to do with the people who use it." Originally, the political movement to ban marijuana was motivated by racism, particularly against Mexicans. Then jazz, the beatniks, hippies, and the hip-hop crowd were targeted as corruptive forces. These are "people the mainstream doesn't like or is afraid of."
Meanwhile, when some of the harshest drug warriors saw their sons and daughters arrested on drug charges, they immediately called their fancy lawyers and pleaded with the courts for lenient sentences. In the corrupt world of modern drug policy, what's good for poor black and Hispanic kids isn't at all good for the rich progeny of the political class. Schlosser concludes, "I don't believe there is a war on drugs, I believe there is a war on poor people who use certain drugs."
Schlosser argues this war on (some users of some) drugs undermines the criminal justice system and all our civil rights. "The war on drugs is a violation of civil rights... If they can do this to them, maybe, someday, they'll do it to you."
Expressing a similar sentiment as the one described by Fatema Gunja in The New Prohibition, Schlosser said of the drug war, "This is a moral crusade." Prohibitionist laws "intervene in the market on moral grounds."
Schlosser is exactly right to describe the drug war as a pseudo-religion. Rational argument can barely penetrate the self-righteous furor of many drug warriors. As has happened throughout the centuries, mainstream religion is invoked in the name of persecuting the poor, the darker-skinned, and the social outcasts.
Where Schlosser gets into trouble is in describing free-market ideology in similar terms. Throughout his presentation, Schlosser again and again referred to the free market as a "religion." He said Adam Smith is "an idealist in many ways" who saw "God miraculously matching buying and selling." Schlosser equated "the invisible hand" with the divine.
Of course most early Western economists were Christians -- as were most other people. But that doesn't mean the theories of economics and of the free market are linked to or dependent upon religion. Smith invoked not a literal "invisible hand," but instead employed a metaphor. I'm confident that, if Schlosser wished to check, he would discover that economists and advocates of the free market tend to be atheistic more than practically all other groups. If Schlosser would read free-market economists, he would find that set of theories is described in secularist, scientific terms. There's nothing mystical or mysterious about supply and demand. The fact that no central planner can acquire enough knowledge to dictate supply and demand does not place economics outside of the realm of science, it merely describes the nature of reality.
Notably, Schlosser uses the terms "idealist" and "ideology" as if they were indicative of a religious (or pseudo-religious) outlook. Thus, he reveals a basically pragmatist frame of reference. I use that term here to indicate not a concern with practical consequences -- which most people share -- but the philosophical assumptions that hold principles are (ironically, in principle) useless in guiding our behavior and automatically prone to zealotry. Thus, Schlosser holds free-market theory in suspicion, precisely because it is coherent and far-reaching.
To add to his own confusion, Schlosser apparently conflates the free market with something like what Reagan advocated. Well, if that's his standard, it's no wonder he misunderstands the (actual) free market. The politics of Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes are in fact antithetical to the free market and overtly hostile to it. Indeed, the Libertarian Party was formed in 1971, largely in reaction to Nixon's anti-market policies.
There is, of course, a grain of truth buried in Schlosser's mountainous assumptions. True, today many among the "Christian right" pay lip service to the free market, even as they advocate all sorts of market interventions (such as the drug war). But what passes as the "right wing" today is far from homogeneous. The religious right picked up its free-market rhetoric (and that's all it is, is rhetoric) from the secularist libertarian right. These two groups generally are at war with each other and sometimes collaborate simply because the Marxists of the left constitute a common enemy. The libertarian right (I consider myself a libertarian but not a member of the right-wing) generally is suspicious of the religious right and very much in favor of maintaining the separation of church and state. That some political leaders placate both groups has nothing to do with the interrelationship of the groups' core ideas -- there is none -- and everything to do with stitching together a fundamentally reactionary coalition.
Another problem for Schlosser is that Smith is not really a free-market economist. Yes, he laid the groundwork for much free-market thought, but he also shared with Marx (and passed on to Marx) the labor theory of value. Murray Rothbard, a student of the 20th Century's preeminent free-market economist Ludwig von Mises, disliked Adam Smith and frequently abused him. So if Schlosser wants to figure out what free-market economics is, he should read people like Mises, Mises's students, including Rothbard and George Reisman, pop writers such as Henry Hazlitt, and even Chicago Schoolers such as Milton Friedman (whom Mises nevertheless criticized for straying from free markets).
Schlosser's misunderstanding of free-market economics led him to make a large and surprising blunder. Again, Schlosser correctly noted the drug war is an intervention in the market on pseudo-moralistic grounds. He further pointed out that this is in direct contradiction to the vaguely pro-market-sounding rhetoric of the right. But Schlosser's conclusion is not that the right should overcome its hypocrisy, support free markets, and end the drug war, as one might expect. Instead, Schlosser argues the "free-market religion of ours is a false one, and a myth." Further, "government is intervening in the economy every single day," and "government has been involved in the market since the beginning of this country."
Schlosser's conclusion, then, is that, given the government necessarily intervenes in the market, it should do so in order to help the poor, not hurt them by locking them up in prison for smoking a relatively harmless plant. The problem he finds is not economic intervention, but rather the unwise use of economic intervention. Schlosser weaves a sophisticated -- and fantastically wrong -- social theory that holds the pseudo-moralism of the market is bound up with the pseudo-moralism of prohibition. Even though the open market and the black market seem like opposites, they are in fact fundamentally interdependent, linked by a schizophrenic righteous furor. I give Schlosser points for ingenuity.
There is a much simpler sociological theory to explain the contradiction he describes -- a theory that has the additional virtue of being true. Prohibition is in fact directly linked to other economic interventions, and it is the opposite of the free market. I cannot name a single person I would label a "free-market advocate" who favors the prohibition of (some) drugs. Partly, this is a semantic issue: support of drug prohibition automatically disqualifies one as a free-market advocate. But there's more to it than that. Those who sometimes employ free-market rhetoric, but who also support the drug war, do not in fact favor the general free market, either. That is, drug warriors are quick to intervene in the economy for all sorts of other reasons. It is no coincidence that the "war on poverty" and the "war on drugs" relies upon the same linguistic setup. The two sorts of interventions are in fact brothers.
One specific example drives home the nature of Schlosser's mistakes. He offers up as an example of the need for more economic intervention the plight of illegal immigrants, some of whom are enslaved. Hello? The entire problem was created by government intervention --- specifically the political act of making illegal (much) immigrant labor. In this case, government intervention in the economy directly and obviously caused the problem, yet Schlosser somehow is able to overlook this and put his sole trust in the government to resolve the problem. Harry Browne's explanation, "the government breaks your legs, then hands you a pair of crutches and tells you how great it is," often seems strident, but here it fits perfectly.
Of course, not all governmental action constitutes "economic intervention." Or, if Schlosser prefers, we can say that some sorts of "intervention" are good, while others are bad. Specifically, acts of governance to protect people's rights -- e.g., to stop predators from enslaving others -- is a necessary part and foundation of the free market. The free market is not necessarily hostile to governance, as Schlosser seems to assume, but dependent upon it. Without the rule of law, there is no free market. (I'll leave aside various disputes concerning the proper definition of "government" -- it is sufficient for our purposes to posit any organized effort to enforce the rule of law.) Thus, the proper solution to the exploitation of immigrants is two-fold: remove improper economic interventions and add proper ones (i.e., efforts to stop enslavement and so forth). We can learn a lot from Schlosser, so long as we are willing to discard his false assumptions and bogus conclusions.
To be sure, Schlosser has some superficial understanding of the free-market case. For example, he mentioned some discussions he's had with friends about minimum wage laws, overtime regulations, and unions. He correctly noted the free-market position wonders, "Why should the government have anything to do with it?" However, Schlosser merely mentioned these examples as obvious flaws with the free-market perspective -- without bothering to explain why they're flaws. It is objectively true that wage and overtime laws reduce the choices available to workers and reduce the amount of pay available to some workers (generally the poorest). Unions are perfectly compatible with free markets -- so long as the unions are not granted special political powers (as they are today). The economic interventions Schlosser favors in fact hurt precisely the poor -- so much for "economic justice."
Notice that, while libertarian critics of the drug war are perhaps fewer in number than their left-wing counterparts, the libertarian case against the drug war is much stronger. Schlosser mentioned so-called "liberal" politicians have been among the worst offenders when it comes to passing draconian drug legislation. But Schlosser spoke of this as if it were an accident. The libertarian case builds upon the concept of individual rights and draws in a rich economic critique. Libertarians understand the drug war creates economic distortions in much the same way as other economic interventions do. Leftists adopt economic intervention as a way of political life, so it's no wonder they also often support intervention in the drug markets.
Schlosser also seems to assume the free-market case depends upon treating economically efficient outcomes as moral outcomes. Nothing could be further from the truth (despite the erroneous treatment of this matter by some libertarians). Just as we can (politically) support free speech without (morally) supporting all specific expressions, so we can support free markets without morally supporting all market outcomes.
Notably, Schlosser himself is engaging in capitalism in order to reform capitalism. I have begun to careful limit the types of meat products I'll buy and consume because of precisely the sorts of concerns that animate Schlosser. The (mostly corporate-run) health-food stores are a market response to perceived problems.
As another example, I would argue that the majority of television programming is garbage that people should avoid. I watch only a few hours of television per week at most, and then mostly news and educational programming. On the other hand, some shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek) are quite worth while, and my wife and I rent quite a few movies. The argument is not that all moral outcomes are good or moral. The argument, instead, is that a free market is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for moral outcomes. Again, the argument is similar to the one for free speech. (Censorship is nothing but economic intervention in one particular market.)
Some things Schlosser criticizes, then, such as slavery, are simply not part of the free market, and indeed are hostile to it. He's right to look to legal solutions in such cases. Other things, like unhealthy food, can and should be criticized and solved through the market -- through voluntary action and persuasion. (Of course, false advertising is a form of fraud that is properly addressed through law. Negligence that spreads disease too is properly actionable) And yet other things Schlosser criticizes are in fact good. For instance, he said that, while Barnes&Noble is okay because at least the large corporate chain sells books, Costco and Wal-mart are a "real threat to the book business." Why? Because they buy select titles at high quantities and sell them to their customers at a discount. Gee, it's just a tragedy that people are able to buy books at lower prices. Of course, Schlosser's publisher is free to abstain from contracting with those big stores, and Schlosser is free to pursue yet other alternatives (including e-publishing and whatever else). (Yes, Costco carries Fast Food Nation, right alongside Nickel and Dimed and Stupid White Men.) Today, thanks to market advances, it's easier to obtain a book -- virtually any book ever published -- than it has ever been in the history of the world.
The great irony in all this is that Schlosser feels he can attack the free-market position as a pseudo-religious "ideology," when in fact his own political philosophy is largely the product of two specific ideologies -- the Marxist theory of exploitation wrapped in the colorful paper of pragmatism. Thus, he pretends that others are ideological freaks (freaks because they are ideological), whereas he's supposedly just approaching the issues from a common-sense, journalistic perspective -- see it and report it. Yet Schlosser's own ideological blinders prevent him from clearly understanding what free markets are all about and evaluating them on common footing with his own ideological assumptions. That is, he maintains a double standard: he offers weak attacks against the free-market perspective and assumes he can get away with that because his target is an "ideology," even as he pretends his own views are not ideological and therefore above the need for theoretical critique.
Yet in the end, Schlosser has performed a great service. His specific criticisms of drug policies and other sorts of economic interventions are lively and well-informed. I look forward to perusing his books to follow his evidence and anecdotes, and also to further consider his ideological presuppositions. And when will these horribly destructive prohibitionist laws finally be repealed? Schlosser answers: "When all of you make it happen."