In ancient times, bread served as the main ration of Roman armies. Supply wagons moved loaves upon loaves in preparation for long, difficult campaigns. Bakers sized each loaf to act as a whole day’s food supply for two soldiers. To the Romans, this must have initially seemed like the ideal way to supply an army. It was cheap-compared to other options, anyway-and expedient. Bread, after all, is relatively easy to transport. But as John Steele Gordon once noted, aside from sex and gambling, food is pretty much a soldier’s-or at least a Roman soldier’s-primary form of enjoyment. Asking two Roman legionnaires to share one loaf of bread was roughly equivalent to asking that two toddlers share the same toy. The situation caused numerous fights. Fellow soldiers accused each other of cheating. Dissent was everywhere. The Romans needed a solution.
What resulted was a law familiar to anyone who has ever had a sibling and a clever mother: one soldier was allowed to cut the bread into two shares, then the other was allowed to have first pick. Though seemingly simple, the bread law is actually a great testament to the Romans’ skill as lawmakers. It took account of competing incentives on both sides of the conflict and invented an artful way to reconcile them. Neither soldier could complain he had been cheated for the very obvious reason that there was no way to cheat. If the first soldier cut unequal pieces, he could only reasonably expect the second soldier to choose the larger piece. Meanwhile, the second soldier had his choice of shares. He could hardly blame someone else if he himself picked the worse.
The Romans’ skill in lawmaking is something largely missing from today’s political world. Their surgeon’s tools have been replaced by our mallets, and we have suffered for it. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the War on Drugs. Over the last decade or so, legislation regarding illegal drug use has followed a fairly basic pattern: more cops, more prisons and lengthier sentences-all of which boil down to “more money.” As a result, our inner cities are rotting and our prisons are swelling. Our laws fail to account for many complex causes of drug use and supply, and so they have failed to achieve their purpose. Detailing such causes would merit a heap of sociological studies, but few factors are so obvious yet so ignored that they deserve mention.
For one thing, most drugs are highly addictive. It sounds obvious, but every day, people are sent to jail for drug use due to the belief that being locked up will somehow curb their behavior once they are released. The major exception-marijuana-is so prevalent and socially acceptable these days that even if jail sentences stop users, so few are caught that the deterrent effect is negligible.
The real issue, though, is supply. As long as drugs are available, people will use them. A great deal of effort has been aimed at suppliers, yet the results have been almost laughable. Despite numerous high-profile arrests, the river of drugs flows stronger than ever into this country. For the sake of argument, I’ll adopt the simplistic belief that “drug dealers” are a side, and that they’re competing with the “U.S. government” side. Two main factors favor the drug dealers. For one, the illegality of drugs makes them highly profitable, which provides high-level dealers with a massive treasury to draw upon. Second, the poor underclass in this society is bloated. There are too many young people whose only path to money, power, fame and-in a way-success is one where dealing drugs is almost a necessity. Knock down a major dealer from his station today and you’ll find three more manning it tomorrow. There is simply too much money to be had. A constantly replenished labor supply and a bottomless war chest are hard to beat, especially when your side is limited by low enrollment and a government budget. The same problems that presented themselves during Prohibition-a skyrocketed price for an illegal commodity and a large, poor underclass-are staring us in the face once again.
But the right wing is hardly alone when it comes to poor lawmaking. Indiscriminate welfare, among other traditionally left-wing programs, has done its fair share of damage, equaling the War on Drugs’ lack of historical understanding with its own lack of economic insight. As much as some people might like to think otherwise, the Soviet Union still stands as an example of the dangers inherent in excessive wealth redistribution. Tell a person you’re taking three inches from their plasma TV to feed a starving family and they’ll usually let it go-if for no other reason than it would appear callous not to. But tell that same person you’re taking half of their paycheck every month for little return and they’ll eventually stop working, do a poor job or move somewhere else. Economies are complex machines, and graceless tinkering often hurts the very people it is meant to help.
None of this is necessarily to say that drugs should be flat-out legalized or that welfare programs should be immediately and wholly trashed. Drug use and poverty both do have serious implications that deserve consideration. The point is that drugs, poverty and many other issues are complex social problems that require more nuanced and creative responses than what the current approaches offer.
A gut reaction when considering such things is to blame politicians. But maybe, as the late George Carlin once said, this is simply “the best we can do.” Politicians, after all, merely respond to political incentives-which, in this country, most generally means votes. The majority of voters, it seems, are as or even more short-sighted than their elected officials. What is really a very pragmatic and serious concern largely gets wrapped up in the language of morality, of right and wrong. The thinking seems to be: drugs are wrong, therefore we should make them illegal or; poverty is wrong-therefore we shouldn’t “allow” poverty. People are using drugs? Throw cops at them. People are poor? Throw money at them. If there is a strong set of evidence showing that the consequences of such blunt measures ultimately undermine the original goal, well, consequences be damned. What’s right is right.
There are still many a great legal minds in this country, both in the political world and among regular people. Critics have a nasty habit of ending their criticisms with apocalyptic imagery and defeatist tones; but there is much happening already and still much that can be done to improve this country and our legislation in particular, and it would be a mistake to ignore that fact. Yet the supply of creative and innovative legislators is dwindling. Our current approach to social problems is simpleminded, and time is already beginning to show just how much damage we are doing to ourselves.
Lawrence UebelThe Miami Student