Cultural Psychology

Archive for March 2010

Is the US Drug War is Ruining Mexico and Latin America?

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Is the US Drug War is Ruining Mexico and Latin America?

Some of my posts here are more academically oriented — on issues like social policy or psychology — but since this is a blog, some posts are more ‘from the heart’.  This one is a case in point.

The other day I saw a television news story about the Mayor of Juarez (Ciudad Juárez), the large Mexican city that borders El Paso, Texas. (You can watch the same or a similar interview here: )

It was shown how, after receiving death threats from Mexican drug cartels, he has to go everywhere with an armed guard.  In reply to the interviewer’s question whether he’s considered quitting, he said ‘No’, and explained that he was too committed to helping the city develop at a critical point in its history.

The Mayor seemed completely credible, and if that is his motivation then he is heroic.  I tend to believe him.  When I was a child, my family frequently drove into El Paso (the nearest large city).  I vividly remember looking south across the Rio Grande to the hillsides of Juarez, filled with shacks, and signs of utter poverty.  It was incredible to think that, this close to the US, people could live under these conditions.  A person could not witness this without being motivated by the innate human sense of compassion to want to see these conditions improved.

So when this man says that he has a vision of a decent life for his city and people, I believe him.  But standing in his way are drug cartels.  And standing behind the Mexican drug cartels is the insane Drug War of the United States.

Let us speak plainly here, enumerating the plain facts:

1. The Drug War doesn’t work.

Despite the billions of dollars spent, drug abuse is still common in the United States.  Anyone who wants to can easily by marijuana or harder drugs.

2. Public sentiment favors decriminalization of marijuana.

In virtually every referendum in which it’s been put to the test, voters have demanded decriminalization.

3. The Drug War is a cheap ploy to curry favor with voters by appearing tough on crime.

If any American citizens do want the war on drugs, it’s probably because their opinions have been manipulated by politicians.

4. The Drug War results in numerous (and sometimes fatal!) civil rights violations of American citizens.

DEA agent:  “What do you mean, ‘wrong address’?  Oops! Sorry about that gunshot wound.  Nothing personal, right?”

5. The Drug War has filled our prisons.

How to create jobs:  (a) make more laws, (b) put more people in jail, (c) hire more guards.

6. By making drugs illegal, it becomes no longer necessary for people to develop moral character by choosing not to use drugs.

What’s really revealing is that this argument is completely over the heads of government officials.

Americans lived without the Drug War for a long time and it didn’t cause society to collapse.  From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, marijuana use was well known.  It was considered a vice, but wasn’t criminalized to the extent it is today. It was associated with artists, musicians, and bohemians.   Common sense, social norms, and a plea to personal responsibility were enough to keep the problem from getting out of control.

In the 19th century, people could go into a drug store and by opium tincture (laudanum).  Again, this did not lead to the breakdown of society.

These and other examples show that legalization of drugs doesn’t cause society to fall apart.  Yes, there will be cases of addiction and abuse, but these can be dealt with, just as we now deal with alcohol abuse and addiction.  It’s less disruptive to society to deal with drug abuse by individuals than to deal with a government that has gotten out of control, and, at least with regard to drug policy, is indistinguishable from a fascist state.

All this would be bad enough if the problems of the Drug War were confined to our own country, but, as the example of Juarez’ mayor shows, that is not the case.  By making marijuana and cocaine illegal we create a demand for illegal drugs, which are supplied by Latin America.

On top of this, American policy is hypocritical, since the fact is that many Americans want to use marijuana.  In how many motion pictures or television shows do you see sly innuendos or allusions to marijuana use?  Our laws make it illegal, but our culture sees it as ‘cool.’

We are making Latin America do our dirty work, while our politicians strut around congratulating themselves on their high moral principles.

We have no right to do this.  The just and honorable thing, not to mention the practical thing, is to decriminalize recreational drugs.

The Individual Mandate: Commerce, Tax, or Government Subscription Fee?

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So far, a lot of discussion about challenging the individual mandate of healthcare reform centers on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution: does Congress have the right to mandate purchase of private health insurance by virtue of its Constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce?

It’s possible that all this concern with the Commerce Clause is obscuring and taking attention from more fundamental problems here. Look at it this way. Western European governments tax people to pay for socialized medicine. Basically it’s part of the income tax. In theory the US federal government could do the same thing; nobody would claim that such an increase in federal income tax is unconstitutional.

One way to interpret what’s happened is that the government is saying, “We could just raise your income tax by 20% and put all healthcare financing under a government insurance program. But this would be unnecessarily expensive. So instead, we’re going to make you send your money to private insurance companies, not us. Because of the competition that introduces, this will be better for everyone.”

So, from a practical standpoint, given a choice between the former model, which is clearly constitutional, and the latter, which is questionable, the latter is better. Maybe it’s not “constitutional” in a strict sense, but it is better.

However it appears there may be a deeper philosophical issue here — one that pertains to the fundamental relationship of citizens to government, and the nature of the social contract. Functionally, the individual mandate serves as a kind of tax. But usually taxes are for things we do or use. We pay sales tax on items we buy, for instance. We pay tax on income we earn. If you don’t buy anything or don’t earn anything, you don’t have to pay these taxes.

But the individual mandate amounts to a tax on just being alive. Thus, it is really more like a subscription fee than a tax: one is required to pay it simply because one is a citizen. That strikes me as unprecedented. The principle it implies — that, basically, the citizen is owned by the State, and has an *automatic* obligation to the State — seems like a defining feature of Socialism. It is a truly radical change in the relationship between the individual and the State. And whether it is explicitly prohibited in the Constitution or not, that does seem like something the founding fathers did not intend.

So in summary the argument I’m raising goes as follows: (1) under the Constitution, Congress could legally raise taxes to pay for universal healthcare; (2) if they’re allowed to impose such a tax, they should also be allowed to make us send our checks instead to insurance companies — because that is cheaper (the insurance companies would be functioning like contracted tax collectors and administrators); (3) however there is a significant question whether fees for mandatory health coverage are a ‘tax’ in the usual sense (and the sense meant by the framers of the Constitution), as opposed to a subscription fee demanded of citizens.

Health Care Insurance or Else

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Health Care Insurance or Else.

Here is the video to go with the preceding post.

Sen. Orrin Hatch with Greta von Susteren: Insurance mandate unconstitutional, totalitarianism

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Health Insurance or Else

Sen. Orrin Hatch with Greta von Susteren: Insurance mandate unconstitutional, totalitarianism

On Wednesday, March 24, 2010, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was interviewed by Greta van Susteren, host of the Fox News program “On the Record.” In his remarks [video here] Hatch broached the real issues: that the way the Democrats have approached reform goes against our vision and deepest sentiments as Americans as to what this country is and should be.

Here are some quotes from the interview:

“Back on Hillary-care they had a mandate in there. I didn’t realize it, I didn’t pay any attention to it. We were trying to defeat Hillary-care. The more I studied since then, the more I’ve looked at it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion it would be unconstitutional to force people to buy something they don’t want to buy.

It would be the first time in history that the government could tell you that you have to buy something you don’t want to buy.

Now, they say you have to buy auto insurance. No you don’t. You don’t have to drive if you don’t want to. That’s just part of the privilege of driving. But in this case they are going to make you buy insurance even though you don’t have any desire to, any reason to.

And frankly, it would be the first time that your liberties would be taken away from you where you would be forced to do something you don’t want to do. I just don’t think that is constitutionally sound.”

Another quote:

“One of the things about this bill is the mandate is a big part of it. They want to force people to do whatever they want them to do. That’s what you call totalitarianism. It is not really good government.

And in this country we believe in liberty. We believe in freedom. We believe people ought to have choices. We believe they can make their own choices. If they choose not to buy something, that is their privilege. They can suffer the consequences if they don’t. But if they choose not to buy it, that’s their privilege.

But to have the government come in and say you have to buy this or we are going to penalize you, that’s not America. That’s not what we believe in. That’s not what helped build this country.

I understand the arguments behind mandating and everybody’s got to buy insurance. But then it comes down to what kind of insurance? A policy that the federal government designs for you? They are going to make a big determination as to what kind of policies you are going to have.

You basically lose your individual freedom if the government can tell you that you have to buy something you don’t want.”

He further remarked:

“If you look in the history of this country we’ve never had major sweeping piece of social legislation — that is any good — that’s been passed by just a partisan vote.

And Republicans want health care just as badly as they do. We think we should have started over and gone step-by-step to bring in the things that we mutually can agree on first, and then compromise on the things that we can’t initially agree on.

That’s how it’s done around here. That’s what brings people together. That’s what gets rid of the animosity. That’s what helps us to become functioning Americans working together.”

Government Healthcare Reform: Paradoxes and Quandaries

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Government Healthcare Reform: Paradoxes and Quandaries

Suppose a medical treatment costs $500 a year and will save a patient’s life with 100% certainty. (That’s more or less the case with HIV infection; if issues of drug royalties are put aside, it should cost no more than $500 a year to manufacture and administer a cocktail of antiviral medicines which are nearly 100% effective in suppressing the viral infection that leads to AIDS.) If an American can’t pay for this hypothetical treatment, should society provide it for free?

For this specific example, I say yes. Whether this is a right or not is another question. Perhaps it’s better seen it as an issue of social justice, not a right per se. A person doesn’t technically have a right to receive free healthcare, because that amounts to saying that another person can be forced to pay for it. With greater confidence we can say that there is a social obligation to provide for the health needs of the poor. People are required by conscience, duty, and justice to do this.

Consider now a second example: a medical treatment that costs $10 million per patient, and has only a 1% chance of success. If there were no other treatment, a billionaire, someone with plenty of money and nothing to risk, might choose this treatment. Does a poorer person, someone without $10 million, have a right to receive the treatment at the public expense? Common sense says no.

Between these two extremes are many actual disorders and treatments. For example, there are many very expensive treatments for late-stage cancer, often with limited chance of success, perhaps at best extending life at a low quality for a few months. Does justice require that society pay for these treatments for the poor?

These considerations illustrate how issues of social justice and ethics, some potentially involving intensely personal religious and spiritual values, must play a role in determining appropriate allocation of healthcare and associated financial resources. In a traditional society these issues would be sorted out with attentive deliberation, kindness, fairness, and wisdom. None of these are virtues which anyone suggests modern governments enjoy a superabundance of.

Does one have a social responsibility to contribute to the healthcare costs of the poor?

Does society have a right to fine a person who does not?

Does government have a right to require one to be employed in order to pay for healthcare of other people?

If jobs with good working conditions are scarce, does government have a right to require one to work for inconsiderate or exploitative employers? Is one required to work under conditions that may involve unreasonable stress and stress-related illness?

May government require us to work ourselves sick in order to pay for public healthcare?

Could a hypothetical evil society exist wherein corporations and governments cooperate to exploit the workers — the government forcing people under threat of fines and imprisonment to be employed? The element of choice being removed from the worker, would employers be tempted to neglect workers’ needs and welfare?

Would it be ironic if, under the name of socialist principles of justice and egalitarianism, a more capitalist (in the negative sense) system of worker exploitation is created?

There is no cure for the common cold. Therefore it cannot be that said anyone has a right to receive treatment for the common cold. If an effective cold treatment were invented tomorrow, would that create a right that did not exist before?

If a treatment exists which nobody can afford, does anyone have a right to that treatment? As soon as one person can afford it, does that immediately produce a right of everyone in society to receive the treatment?

Consider the issue of efficiency. Under the Obama healthcare plan, citizens would be required to buy insurance policies that are, compared to a few years ago, exorbitantly expensive. Many, if not most health economists would claim that healthcare costs today are unrealistically inflated. In theory we could design more efficient, alternative healthcare and healthcare financing systems that cut the costs by 1/2 or 2/3. Or said another say, many believe that government intrusion into healthcare financing (e.g., Medicare), has radically increased healthcare costs and inefficiency. If justice demands that poor people receive healthcare, does that also mean it demands their access to insanely overpriced healthcare? Or does justice only demand that richer citizens contribute towards the medical expenses of the poor at a level commensurate with reasonable and realistic prices?

When Robin Hood meets the rich man in the forest, well may he say, “Stand and deliver! I take from the rich and give to the poor!” The rich man, if he has a conscience, can little complain. Robin does him a favor, for all applaud justice truly served. Let him toss his bag of gold, have a jolly good laugh, and be on his way.

But what if Mr. Hood says, “Stand and deliver. Yield thee up three bags of gold. One for the poor man, one for my own services, and one for the extra fees I levy on the poor. For I run the clinics, which, though mean and miserable, are most expensive. They are staffed with my lazy friends, and we buy overpriced supplies from crooked merchants who bribe us. But none of this is your concern. Three bags of gold, I say, or else.”

Do people have a right to healthcare?
Do people have a right not to starve in a land of plenty? Does government policy officially prevent starvation?

It is commonly said that the three necessities of life are food, shelter, and clothing. There are people in America without food and shelter. Why is the government more interested in healthcare than in these more fundamental necessities? Could it be that the government is unduly influenced by special interest groups — pharmaceutical companies and insurance corporations?

Is the government’s interest more in justice, or power?

Suppose we allow there is a right not to starve. And suppose it should cost $5 per day to feed someone. What if the government created an extremely inefficient program that cost $20 per day to feed a poor person. And then the government said that all food distribution to the needy must occur within this program. Do the poor ehen have a right to demand that the rich pay $20 per day for their food? Or would justice require only that the rich pay $5 per day?

If the rich pay $5 per day towards the food of each poor person, and the government cannot spend this money efficiently, would it not be the government which is unjust? If the government is unjust, is it the duty of the rich to compensate for this? Would there be a stronger moral obligation to change the government?

The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

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The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

It used to be (and hopefully is still the case), that, if one really wanted to, one could go some place like Montana, build a cabin, and ‘live off the land’. Today people associate this with extremists, but traditionally in American history this was just called homesteading. (Until recently, this was still done in Alaska; maybe it still is.) With no income, a person wouldn’t have to pay income tax. If someone else owned the land and let the person live there, there would be no property taxes. This person could live like Thoreau, a totally free individual. And, like Thoreau, this person, by virtue of this independence, might be able to more fully realize the depths and potentials of the human soul better than those who merely live like cogs in a machine.

Now consider that our Constitution, and our country itself, is founded on the principle of the Social Contract. By this principle, consenting individuals freely choose to abrogate the exercise of certain rights in exchange for the benefits of living in a community. Although they abrogate the exercise of certain rights (it is not clear that a person ever surrenders rights per se, but only the exercise of rights), they retain their essential freedom because they have freely chosen to participate in the Social Contract. The possibility to ‘live off the land’, or whatever else one wants to call it, arguably preserves our essential freedom. Perhaps in all cases a person would be foolish or unrealistic to drop out like this; maybe it should never be done in practice. But even if nobody chooses it, the option to live off the land exists: this makes us essentially free, and makes participation in the Social Contract a free choice.

Contrarily, if participation in the Social Contract is forced, then not only are people not free, but the Social Contract is invalid: a fundamental, universally acknowledged principle governing contracts is that parties must freely agree to participate; any contract effected by coercion is automatically invalid.

The Constitution does not go into the details of the Social Contract, but it is evident in the writings of the founding fathers that such considerations guided them. The insurance mandate would remove the ability of a person to live entirely freely. In theory, a person would need to earn money to pay the required subscription premium. If this does not negate the Social Contract entirely, then it is at least a fundamental alteration of in the nature of that contract, which is something not to be taken lightly. A change in the relationship of the individual to society/government this major should only be made with broad citizen support, with careful deliberation, and, preferably, only by means of a constitutional amendment.

Further, as the connection with Thoreau helps make evident, the current debate does broach issues related to religious freedom. If we build a society where there can no longer be a hermitage at Walden Pond, then some would argue that government is attempting to limit and control the human soul.

John Uebersax PhD is a former faculty member of the Wake Forest Medical School and RAND Corporation policy analyst.

Written by John Uebersax

March 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm