PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This is about me, my mugger and Milton Friedman.
I was alone on a New York subway platform when a man started toward me. His glassy eyes foretold what was to happen. He pointed at the flute case I was carrying and said, “Give it to me.”
Pulling the case back, I said “no,” at which point he snapped open a knife and pointed it at my ribs. I then held out the flute, squeaking, “Take it.” He grabbed the instrument and ran off.
I didn’t need Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate who died Nov. 16, to explain the economics involved. My mugger obviously had a drug habit made very expensive by the fact that his narcotic was illegal. Were his drug legal, he might have been able to buy it for the price of celery, in which case he wouldn’t have needed me. He could have found the required change under seat cushions.
As a pure economic transaction, the mugging was most inefficient. The flute was a battered student model, so my assailant couldn’t have gotten more than $40 for it. I called the police to report the crime, which cost the taxpayers money. The bored officer at the other end asked the “what, when and where,” then said, “OK, your case number is 5-0-3-7-7-3-1-4” and about five other digits. No one was hurt, and he still had to do the paperwork.
A free-market advocate, Friedman made respectable the idea that the drug trade is an unstoppable activity — and that laws prohibiting drugs were wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and hurting millions of innocent bystanders. Friedman became a hero to many good citizens who did not care to stand between a drug addict and his fix. To Friedman, the war on drugs was not a moral crusade. It was just plain stupid.
In a famous 1989 open letter to Bill Bennett, drug czar under the first President George Bush, Friedman wrote: “Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore … Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.”
America sends an estimated $40 billion a year down the war-on-drugs rat hole. The innocents, meanwhile, keep piling up — from burglarized homeowners to children caught in drug-turf crossfire. Every time law enforcement throws a drug seller in jail, it is making more business for the dealer’s competitors.
Try this instead: Put the drug dealers and narco-terrorists out of business by providing free drugs to our addicted populations. That way, we know who the abusers are and can offer them treatment. And those who persist in their addictions wouldn’t have to prey on the rest of us for their drug money.
Americans are unlikely to legalize drugs anytime soon, but they could decriminalize some of them. Marijuana is an excellent place to start. Pot appears to do little harm, and several states have tried to all but legalize it.
Friedman was a dues-paying member of the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to make marijuana a regulated legal product like cigarettes and alcohol. One study suggests that ending the U.S. prohibition against marijuana could produce savings of nearly $8 billion a year and generate more than $6 billion in tax revenues. Friedman and about 500 other leading economists endorsed the findings.
An enlightened drug policy is far off, but those who desire one should light a candle in memory of Friedman.
Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board and a Creators Syndicate columnist.