The Cost of an Unfree Society: It Really Does Affect You

“I don’t care because it doesn’t affect me.” While speaking recently with a good friend of mine, an anti-drug war activist, she said that phrase frustrated and angered her more than any other. Hers is a common grievance among intellectuals and activists concerned with social welfare. The great dream of Marx and other socialists was that ordinary individuals (the 99% in contemporary parlance) would rise as one, combining the forces of their wills to overthrow the status quo and build a brave new world of justice and prosperity. Yet the mere facts of human nature, namely individual self-interest, make this notion seem fanciful to say the least.

Economic scholars point to the incentives people face to explain their general apathy. The best explanation I can give for my own pursuit of knowledge is that I find it intrinsically rewarding. Broadly speaking, ordinary people do not feel they have reason to learn about serious issues or contribute to their resolution. Rational ignorance is the term public choice scholars use to describe this mindset. The theory goes that individuals appraise the potential benefit of informing themselves about an issue, even one touching their lives, below the associated cost. Public choice is also prefaced on the idea that individuals are equally self-interested in market and non-market, namely political settings.

Mancur Olson attributed mass inaction regarding farm subsidies and other arrangements benefiting the few at the expense of the many to problems of incentives and coordination. A small group receiving concentrated benefits from a program has substantial incentive and capacity to organize and effectively lobby in a political system; by contrast, costs are disbursed over the rest of society. Members of the exploited super-majority individually face too little cost and too great difficulty coordinating to stand up for themselves. Such narratives can contribute to an understanding of political action, and inaction.

However, I now wonder whether the incentives we face would differ with a simple change in perspective. Consider the War on Drugs, declared by Richard Nixon in 1970 (which, for the purposes of this article, I will assume is an ethical abomination and abject failure). According to the July 2011 issue of Reason magazine, non-violent drug offenders make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. prison population. (According t0 the statistics quoted to Penn Jillette during his recent ‘Obama Rant,’ 1 in 6 American prisoners have marijuana-related convictions.) Given a U.S. incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people (the highest among all nations for which credible data are available), this implies an estimated rate of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses of (conservatively) 180 per 100,000 people. This figure exceeds the incarceration rates of England and Wales (154), France (96), and Denmark (71).

Well over half a million non-violent drug offenders sit in prison at this very moment. Under another policy regime, they might be able to openly seek treatment for their addictions or otherwise peacefully go about their daily lives, contributing to society. These numbers represent a lot of human capital, an army of minds whose creativity and insight are cut off from the rest of society. Virtually every member of society would benefit from this veritable army of unjustly imprisoned individuals.

The figures quoted above do not include the victims and imprisoned perpetrators of property and violent crime driven by the drug war. Mexico, for example, has suffered enormously as a result of the unbelievable increase in drug war-related violence of recent years. Nor does this argument apply only to drug prohibition or criminal statutes.

Matt Ridley, author most recently of The Rational Optimist, ascribes the remarkable progress of humanity across its entire history, particularly in the last two-hundred years, to “ideas having sex.” This is his racy name for the process by which different individuals’ experiences and insights interact to drive creativity, invention, and innovation. Frederich Hayek wrote in his masterful essay The Use of Knowledge in Society that, “if the people guided by the price [system] understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind.” This process depends crucially on the quantity of connected minds. Profound reliance on it seems to lie at the root of a reductions in average human brain size (and presumably changes in structure) in the last 20,000 years.

This leads me to my basic point. Illiberal polices have the important effect of exerting unseen practical costs on all members of society. Any law or regulation which restricts the free, peaceful action of individuals deprives society of the full benefit derived from their productive and creative faculties. Free market economists frequently lament unrealized wonders of business and commerce in a world without burdensome regulation, yet the same can be said of other illiberal laws and extended beyond a restrictive view of economic activity to cultural and social development. As Frederic Bastiat admonished, we must account for both that which is seen and that which is unseen.

The example of Steve Jobs is trite but relevant, a fitting note to end on. Whatever your opinion of him as a businessman, technologist, and leader, Jobs’ vision certainly drove the information technology revolution, notably including the adoption of major interface technologies (i.e. the mouse, the window-based GUI, multi-point touchscreens).

One of the commentators interviewed for this PBS retrospective said Jobs conceived of the iPad around the time the Apple II was released. He wanted to create a tablet device that could be held like a magazine and retrieve data and interact with other devices through a sophisticated global network—what would become the Internet—though the available technology was obviously not advanced enough at the time. It is also easy to take for granted how primitive handheld computing was when Apple announced the original iPhone in January 2007, a few short years ago. Steve Jobs had a huge impact on our world.

He largely attributed his own creativity and vision to the years he spent as a young man travelling India and experimenting with psychedelic drugs. Imagine if Jobs had been arrested for such pursuits, irrespective of their true value. Imagine the course of consumer technology changing, and with it human history, and the thread of your own life. Steve Jobs was a singular individual, to be sure, the very embodiment of “one in a million.” Yet in his background as the adopted son of a middle-class family, he resembles many other Americans. His story could have easily been different for a number of reasons.

The example of Steve Jobs, and of countless others, should give us pause. We must reconsider whether our ambivalence about the condition of our fellow man is rational after all.