The intellectual cost of prohibition

by on 10 February, 2010

Michael G considers the real cost of prohibition.

Most debates on the subjects of prohibition and censorship are usually a combination of sad and amusing. Much of it is too emotional, hotheaded and relies on fear as a motivator. There are usually but two sides: one advocating the restraint of what it sees as repulsive moral filth and another which brazenly advocates not merely the allowance of said filth but its outright celebration.

This is obvious in most ‘social’ debates presented to people, whether they relate to drugs, alcohol, violence, sex or anything else. Every social debate is treated as a one-off individual issue rather than that great overarching one: whether restrictions on certain things or behaviours actually achieve the intended results and benefit people as individuals and society as a whole.

Just because something is prohibited doesn’t mean people will stop doing or using it. Its accessibility may be diminished but all too often its allure is heightened. The intellectual—and not the monetary or ‘social’—cost to prohibition is the most ignored. When something is banned or restricted there are many more costs to individuals and society than simply police enforcement and any associated government spending.

There is an impact upon the mentality and thought patterns of human beings. It is through wisdom and experience that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Civilisation isn’t built and retained on the forced transfer of knowledge but its continued willing acceptance by each generation. The key point I want to make is that when people don’t learn for themselves why good things are good and bad things are bad, they are desensitised to the long-term consequences of them. Children forced to sit in Church pews by their parents don’t know or understand why they’re there, and quickly leave when given the chance. Adults who go through hell on earth and then stumble into a sermon see the difference between two lives and are the strongest adherents.

It is through the possibility of failure that we succeed. Prevention from failing removes the stark contrast between the two choices and the degree of success achieved becomes weaker and more like failure every year. A Chinese importer once discovered that when importing goldfish into Australia, half of the fish would die before arrival as they didn’t need to escape predators. Such indolence resulted in weak fish that inevitably died in high numbers. The importer then added a predator to the water. Living with risk and the possibility of failure—death at the hands of the predator—the goldfish kept moving and exercising. Many more survived.

When the government bans and prohibits things it usurps the protection that would otherwise be provided by people’s own learnt wisdom and experience. Their character as people is degraded. Rather than being in a situation where they have to consider the risk of something and then make a judgment upon it, they are prevented from doing so. Every banning or prohibition of a good or service retards people’s intelligence by stopping them from thinking about it, trying it, and then making their own decision free from arbitrary government bias.

Indeed more often than not the things that harm people and society as a whole are subtly subsidised and encouraged by the government. When people go in to the city to drink to excess on a Friday or Saturday night (“binge drinking” as reported in the media), they may get there and home on subsidised public transport, may spend money on drink given to them by the government as assistance or welfare payments, and enjoy the security provided by government police. The end result is that the risk of their activity in dollar and personal terms is lessened by the government’s action: they don’t have to pay more for transport to get to their destination, are outright given money for drinking, and the price of drinks are lower because the owners of pubs and clubs don’t have to pay for the security required in case of violence.

Rather than taking an inconsistent path of, on one hand, subtly encouraging bad things, but on the other, railing against and banning them, isn’t the best option to let people make up their own minds, their own decisions? Failing to give people the freedom to make their own choices and take their own risks does not merely imply a mistrust of people, but contributes to the destruction of their rationality and intelligence. The extreme mental damage caused in the long-term by bans and prohibitions far outweighs any short-term harm caused by overindulgence in petty evils.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

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