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August 1, 2006 - State Press (AZ Edu)

OpEd: 'War On Choice' Victimizes World

By Macy Hanson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Adding to the ever-growing list of reasons to end the "War on Choice," it appears that America's misguided attempts to protect Americans from themselves do more than simply hurt Americans-they harm the rest of the world, too. Our politicians' (and their constituents') relentless desire to protect Americans from the misery of personal autonomy deserves an updated victims list, complete with all of those foreign victims who've had America's seemingly unlimited black markets pushed upon them.

As if drug criminalization, the outlawing of prostitution, sin taxes, and all the other usual suspects of paternalism didn't have enough victims already, a growing body of evidence indicates that these types of laws-which primarily serve the interests of theocrats, bootleggers, and pimps-are much worse than they seem. Granted, attacking this communitarian "War on Choice," which its abhorrent implications for individual dignity and the cause of ensuring a highly-limited, value-neutral state, is a lot like beating a dead (wishful thinking?) horse.

However, it'd be remiss, if not just plain wrong, to ignore the poisoning impact that American paternalism has had beyond our borders.

Doing so might even convince the more humanitarian-inclined to coalesce with anti-statists on this issue, if for no other reason other than how these policies simultaneously both damage poorer parts of the world and prevent them from taking those necessary steps to stop the bleeding.

The Arizona Republic recently (6/12/06, "Darkness Beyond Cancun's Beaches") highlighted some of the less-than-savory sociological aspects that have accompanied the growth of Mexican city of Cancun. A crown jewel of the Mexican government (and host to this past March's trilateral North American summit), Cancun demonstrates yet another reason to oppose American paternalism. Through the twin vices of excessive criminalization and regulation, the federal and local governments have effectively pushed the market for drugs (both legal and illegal), prostitution, and nearly everything else that cannot be easily obtained in the US to other civilizations around the globe.

Americans travel internationally for all sorts of reasons, including the availability of products and services that cannot obtain legally at home. With the popularity and reputations of places like Tijuana, British Columbia, Juarez, Amsterdam, and Bangkok, this should come as no surprise.

Of course, some of these locations have handled the demand for illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and prostitution better than others.

But places like Canada, where marijuana enforcement is more relaxed (to say the least) than in the States, and Amsterdam (no explanation needed, I assume) happened to be fortunate enough to have a standard of living high enough to insulate their communities from many of the undesirable side-effects often attributed to a culture of legalized drug-use or prostitution. This, though, seems to miss the point.

The reason why Amsterdam so successfully handles legalized prostitution and the legalized possession of small amounts of "soft" drugs is the fact that it has crippled the black market.

And, clearly, the only way to ever put the black market out of business is to end its monopoly-by decriminalizing whatever it is that so many individuals will risk penalty and pay exorbitant prices to obtain. Cancun's problems with drugs and crime, although not isolated, provide a paradigmatic case through which the affects of American paternalism on developing nations can be analyzed.

At the very least, it is my sincere hope that Cancun's struggles will highlight this issue and bring this criticism of America's "War on Choice" into the arena of public discourse.

Workers in Cancun, as we speak, must cope with rising prices of goods and services as their wages remain stagnant.

Moreover, the wealth of Cancun's superficial success has been concentrated in the hands of a very exclusive group of developers and participants in organized crime rings.

Cancun's growth, and the problems associated with it, are crucial for an additional reason.

As the Arizona Republic notes, Cancun's development has become a popular blueprint for resort development plans across the under-developed world.

The many successes and failures of Cancun carry meaningful advice for the rest of the world, especially the United States. What, then, should we learn from Cancun's narrative?

First, American paternalism affects people all over this planet, creating more-than-compelling incentives for impoverished communities to cheaply offer those things that Americans cannot easily or cheaply get at home. Such is the case with Mexico's nearly-infinite black markets of drugs and sex. I recall a past visit to the border city of Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

Chatting in a cantina, I asked an American transplant in Mexico (who still enjoys American employment) why he would chose to relocate to Juarez. "If you honestly have to ask that question, you won't get it," the man proudly (and awkwardly) declared.

His response floored me, if for no other reason than it confronted me with the extent to which America's paternalist urges affect our neighbors across the globe.

This man then proceeded to recommend a few local brothels to check out during my stay. American policymakers would be wise to contemplate how our hysteria surrounding prostitution and drugs strengthens foreign black markets, and accordingly, strengthens all of those unpalatable elements that run hand-in-hand with black markets.

These unpalatable consequences of drugs and prostitution in Cancun could obviously be mitigated by policies similar to what Mexican Vicente Fox has already proposed-decriminalization of drug possession. If Mexico were to legalize such activities, and thereby take the profits out of the hands of organized crime and corrupt government officials, its black markets would collapse.

Yet this is unrealistic. Mexico, dependent on a complex, fragile relationship with the government to the North, cannot afford to take such measures.

Compared to the potential of provoking America into stricter border enforcement (money transfers from the US, of course, being Mexico's top incomer earner), ending black markets in places like Cancun, Tijuana, and Juarez through the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution is not a reasonable strategy to improve the lives of some of Mexico's most vulnerable citizens.

If real change is to ever occur, it must originate from the United States. Until Americans end the "War on Choice," we commit two inter-connected sins. First, we increase incentives for communities that rely upon American tourism to offer black markets, without regard for all of the injustices that accompany such markets.

Second, we perpetuate an American culture hostile to freedom-a culture that coerces nations like Mexico to not pursue policies that are in its people's interests (like the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution).

A new dynamic must enter any legitimate discussion of American paternalism. If America's "War on Choice" is to be adequately defended, then its foreign consequences must also be justified.

And such a justification, morally speaking, seems highly unlikely.

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