Who? Me?

The recent summit meeting in Cartegena of North and South American leaders was mostly noted in the press for the antics of Secret Service agents who perhaps misinterpreted the meaning of “advance party,” but less well-advertised was the emergence of a strange new syllabus taking shape.  For perhaps the first time, open discussions took place among government leaders on the possibility of legalizing narcotics as an antidote to the epidemic of violence that engulfs most of our Latin neighbors, and has now spilled over into our border states.

A remarkably thorough examination of these meetings is provided by Alma Guillermoprietra’s recent article, “Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena” in The New York Review of Books.  While I am not sympathetic to Mr. Guillermoprietra’s opinions, he has certainly described in great detail and with admirable insight certain aspects of this discussion.

But his article contains two paragraphs that illustrate very important and much-unappreciated aspects of this complex problem.  After many, many sentences regarding the possible hows and what-ifs of actual legalization, he delivers the surprise package, which appears to emerge, in a curiously Oriental fashion, only at the end of the discussion, as a kind of  “oh, by the way.”  And, as is usual, the “oh, by the way” turns out to be the point of the whole exercise:

[Perez Molina, President of Guatemala] suggested at a pre-summit meeting of Central American leaders that countries that expend enormous and scarce resources on controlling drug traffic destined for the United States “be compensated [for their effort] monetarily by the consuming nations, and that this economic compensation be distributed 50 percent to the fight against the drug trade, 25 percent to education, and 25 percent to health.”

The fact is, the economies of many of these countries are to a lesser or greater extent intertwined with narcotrafficking, as are the entrenched bureaucracies, especially the police and armed forces.  There is no way that they are going to effectively attempt to combat the source of their wealth.  Thus, any effort on the part of sincere opponents — and I do believe that Sr. Molina is one of them — will require some form of subsidy to replace the cash flow that vanishes with legalization.

This is a bizarre form of danegeld, wherein the homelands and local rulers of the narco-vikings turn a blind eye to their activities, as long as they are paid suitable tribute.   But it’s every bit as indefensible.

It has long been a wail of the producing nations that they themselves are blameless in the narcotics epidemics of the world.  “You are the users,” they say.  “We could not sell our dope if you did not consume it.”  That anyone ever gave credence to an argument of such phenomenal vacuity, or treated seriously a notion of such extraordinary chutzpah, testifies to the gullibility of social scientists and the ingenuity of the academic mind.  This is the narco-economic equivalent of a rapist’s  “But she was asking for it.”

Further, who among us will admit to accepting at face value the assurance that money paid to these governments will in any meaningful way in fact be “distributed 50 percent to the fight against the drug trade, 25 percent to education, and 25 percent to health?”

A far more likely outcome is that the money will vanish into the long-established sluice gates and cisterns already constructed for such “aid,” and, when the promised improvements in drug interdiction, education and health fail to materialize, diplomats and statesmen will with long faces and grave demeanors explain that it was just “too little too late.”  We have watched this gavotte before, and the only thing that changers are the dancers.

If drugs were in fact legalized, here and in the producing countries, and legalization did in fact eliminate the flows of billions of dollars to the narcotraficantes, who would suffer the most?  The peasants who grow the product?  No — they would continue to be compensated, as their market would still exist.   They would have new and different paymasters, and that’s all.

The kingpins and their senior managers?  Doubtful.  They are already wealthy beyond “the dreams of avarice,” and besides, they have other lucrative sidelines — extortion, kidnapping, and so on.  The Mafia got rich bootlegging, but the end of Prohibition did little to curb its growth.  (The Colombians did that.)

Who then?  Could it be the politicians and officials who, over many years now, have built the relationships and infrastructures to line their own pockets with the payments of those whom they now so assiduously shield and protect?

Unfortunately, Mr.  Guillermoprietra’s discussion does not extend to these topics, perhaps because they are hurtful and insulting to certain people.  We suffer from no such constraints.  But we did note earlier on that this article contained two paragraphs of interest.  Here’s the second:

But one could hope for a policy by which the 6 percent of its national budget that, for example, Colombia currently spends on antidrug, antiguerrilla, and antiviolence operations could instead contribute to family stability through schools and job training, family welfare centers and parks, voluntary weapons-surrender programs, friendly neighborhood police, and well-lit streets. These are policies that might keep children safe and off the streets, where they find nothing to provide pleasure or escape except the toxic dreams of drugs. There will always be alcoholics, heavy smokers, and drug addicts, but a society that provides for the welfare of its citizens is likely to produce fewer of them [emphasis mine].

We read this with a growing sense of alarm, as we began dimly to appreciate a developing theme — for it seemed to us that, having steered his discussion and his analysis very skillfully through a very complex minefield of social pylons and political s-curves, Mr. Guillermopreitra was about to veer completely off the racetrack and slam headlong into a culvert.  Which he did.

The solution to the problem all along is not really legalization or interdiction, suggests Mr. Guillermoprietra, but rather the usual litany of dreamy delusions:  “family stability through schools and job training, family welfare centers and parks, voluntary weapons-surrender programs, friendly neighborhood police, and well-lit streets.”

All greatly to be desired, to be sure, but what forest has Mr. Guillermoprietra being sleeping for the last twenty years?  Voluntary weapons-surrender programs?  Family welfare centers?  Friendly neighborhood police?

It’s the money, Mr. Guillermoprietra.  The money.  Offer people a viable economic alternative to involvement in the drug trade other than minimum-wage jobs.  Sure, that requires education, training, social structure, and all the other benefits of a stable economy.  But that’s where you have to start.  Only a small percentage of the people in the producing nations are actually involved in drug trafficking, but a large part of their economies depend on its revenues.  Before you can even begin to make a dent in the problem, you have to recognize what created it in the first place.  Do you think a bunch of farmers in Colombia said “Hey — instead of sending Americans coffee, and getting them all hyper, let’s send them some herb, and help them mellow out?”  Or was it the higher price per pound?

And that final blurted socioeconomic obscenity:  “a society that provides for the welfare of its citizens?”

Ummm…they’ve tried that, you know — the wonderful paternal state thing.  It hasn’t really worked out very well for any of them, from Evita’s promises to the descamisados to the most recent such experiment:  for all of the confiscation and expropriation Chavez has inflicted on Venezuela, can anyone point to any real measurable improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens?

No, Mr. Guillermoprietra.  You have it, as so many do, exactly reversed.  It is the citizens that provide for the welfare of society.  You need, as so many do, to understand this before you can ever understand anything else.