Why Is There a Drug Problem?
FEBRUARY 01, 1989 by GEORGE C. LEEF
George C. Leef is Associate Professor of Law and Economics at Northwood Institute, Midland. Michigan, and adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center.
Many people in the United States regularly use “recreational” drugs. But drug use is not recreation at all. It is a foolish type of escapism.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with escapism. We all do it when we read novels or listen to music or go to the movies. Drug use, however, is virtually always harmful to the one who engages in it, and is frequently harmful to others who are victimized by drug users. There is as much agreement as one ever finds in this country with the proposition that we confront a serious drug problem and that we need to do something about it.
Most of the discussion about the drug problem has been about proposed solutions. But, as is so often the case, most of the “solutions” fail to analyze and deal with the causes of the problem. Attempting a solution before you know the causes is usually a waste of time and money, and often makes things worse. So, what I intend to do in this essay is to venture some thoughts on this subject: Why are so many people choosing to use drugs?
Let us fast keep in mind that drug use is an individual matter. It is a misuse of language to say that the United States has a drug problem. “The United States” does not and cannot take drugs. What we should say is that a large number of people in the United States use drugs, and that their use leads to serious harm to themselves and often harm to others. We should focus on the problem at an individual level and ask: Why do so many people make the stupid and self*destructive decision to take drugs?
Almost everyone knows that drug use is expensive and debilitating—a threat to one’s health, job prospects, and family relationships. Perhaps there are a few who begin using drugs in the mistaken belief that it is just a harmless pleasure which they can quit at will, but they must be a very small minority. The typical drug user begins and continues his habit knowing that the long-range consequences of his actions will be decidedly negative.
Now, why would anyone risk losing the chance to live a long, healthy, and happy life in exchange for some immediate pleasure? I can think of two possible answers. First, someone who thinks he has no chance to live such a life, and who faces immediate problems which seem very severe, might think that taking drugs is desirable. Second, someone who is very present-oriented in his decision-making, ignoring or heavily discounting future considerations, might be taken in by the blandishments of the drug pusher. What I conclude is that drug use will rise as the number of people who fall into the above two categories (which are not mutually exclusive) rises.
Throughout most of our history, drugs have been legal, but use has been minimal. So, why has drug use risen so much in the last two decades? I submit that the answer, or a major part of it at least, must be that we have more people in the country who are prone to make the decision to use drugs. That is, there are more people who are very short-sighted or who view life with despair or indifference.
Why are there more people who fall into these categories? Historically, the United States has been the premier land of hope and opportunity. Millions of people have immigrated here for that reason. The work ethic has been exceptionally strong here. The vast majority of Americans for the last two centuries have accepted the idea that the proper way to live your life is to work hard, save, and improve yourself so that you and your family may have a more prosperous future. That ethic is missing in any drag user. If we can figure out why the work ethic is in decline, we will have made a big step toward understanding why there is a drag problem in this country.
Seeking an Answer
I doubt that I know the entire answer, but I believe that I know some parts of it.
First, we should look at our system of education. As a professional educator, I see proof every day that our primary and secondary schools are failing to prepare young people for the challenges of a competitive world. The horror stories about our educational collapse are true. Many students graduate from high school today with the most feeble reading, writing, and reasoning skills. (The large numbers who drop out are even worse off.) In many schools, standards are so low, and the dogma that a student’s self-esteem is sacred is so pervasive, that passing is virtually automatic. In this pathetic environment, little is taught, little is expected, and little is learned.
One lesson, however, is learned all too well: You don’t have to try to get by. Young people who see that there is no penalty for failing to work, to plan, and to exercise personal discipline will want and expect the rest of life to be that way. That is the mind-set of the drug user—short-sighted, indifferent, illogical.
A good education does more than just teach specific skills and facts. It also inculcates certain habits of mind which make the use of drugs (and many other forms of destructive, antisocial behavior) unthinkable. A good education teaches one not only how to use his mind, but also to appreciate it as his primary tool for success in the competition of life. It should come as no surprise that many young people who have an education in name only are attracted to mindless diversions, of which drug use is the most harmful manifestation.
Let us also keep in mind that people with little education are ill-equipped to cope with the problems which life inevitably presents. When a well-educated person confronts a problem, he is usually able to use his mind to analyze it, figure out what information he needs, obtain it, and then use it. But the poorly educated person doesn’t have those abilities, and is apt to try to escape from his problems rather than to deal rationally with them. That escape, of course, includes turning to drag use.
Furthermore, for the ill-educated, job opportunities are very scarce. The high school dropout or the graduate who can hardly read a set of instructions isn’t likely to be able to find and hold a job. The absence of discipline, cooperation, and courtesy, which are also learned as part of a sound education, makes it harder still for the ill- educated to keep a job. Idleness and boredom lure many into drug use.
Second, 1 think that the growing welfare state is also part of the explanation of our drug problem. The concept of welfare (now often referred to as the “safety net”) says that you’ll be taken care of without regard to your actions or lack of actions. Welfare encourages, especially in the poorly educated, a feeling of indifference and irresponsibility. A child who sees one or both of his parents doing little or no work and just barely making ends meet at the government’s expense is apt to conclude that life will be the same no matter what you do. And it is people like that who are most prone to the short-lived escape which drags offer. The huge expansion of the welfare state during the “Great Society” of the mid-1960s corresponds closely with the onset of the drug problem. Temporal correlations don’t necessarily demonstrate causality, but I am convinced that there is a connection here.
Third, I believe that some aspects of our nation’s economic policy are to blame for the rise in drug use. Because of a plethora of laws and regulations, it is very difficult today for a poorly educated person to obtain employment. Sixty years ago, even an illiterate immigrant could get a job rather easily. Of course, his wages would be low at first, and he wouldn’t have guaranteed job security or any fringe benefits, but that is exactly why an employer could afford to give him a chance.
Today, the poorly educated run up against minimum wage laws. If their labor isn’t worth the minimum wage (plus employer Social Security contributions and other government-mandated costs), they won’t be hired. More over, “anti-discrimination” statutes raise the possibility that an employer will face a lawsuit if he dismisses a worker. The unhappy worker may charge discrimination even if the employer’s decision was made strictly on merit, and may win if the employer can’t persuade the court that he had a good business reason for his action.
These laws make it more costly and risky for a business to hire people with few skills, and thus opportunities for gainful employment are restricted. The number of people prone to drug use is further increased.
In Losing Ground, Charles Murray argues that the “welfare problem” is rooted in sociological changes which made welfare dependency easier and more acceptable from the mid-1960s on. The same is true, I maintain, about our current drug problem. The decline of quality education, the rising availability of welfare benefits, and rules which militate against the hiring of unskilled people have changed the social environment for millions. Where previously young people almost universally had reason to hope for a better future and possessed the mental acumen to bring it about, today a tragically large number are unable to read, write, and think well enough to take advantage of the limited opportunities open to them. Quite a few of our problems have their roots in this change in the social environment. The drug problem is one of the most serious.
The common thread in these three factors which lead to increased drug use is that they are interferences with the natural order of the free market. Public schools are a non-market phenomenon, as are the welfare system and restrictions on freedom in the labor market. Nobody wanted these institutions to foster a drug problem, but I believe that they have contributed significantly to it. At work here is the law of unintended consequences. Laws which interfere with the free market have negative unintended consequences. The laws I have mentioned, rather than making life better for people, have harmed the lives of many.
Even if there were no drugs at all, a nation with large numbers of ill-educated, indifferent, and unemployable people would experience serious problems. If these people didn’t turn to drugs, they would surely turn to some other vice. A completely successful war on drugs—which is probably impossible no matter what level of effort—would simply lead to other problems we’d have to wage war on.
The drug problem is not the disease itself, but one of the symptoms of a disease. The drug problem will go away when we again have a nation in which no one has any desire to take drugs. The problem lies in the demand for drugs, so that is where we must look for the solution.
If my analysis is correct, curing the disease will necessarily include the restoration of a sound educational system. People who are well educated—or at least not badly educated—will see the utter irrationality of drug use and abstain from it. Precisely how we can best go about restoring a sound educational system is the topic for many other essays, but I doubt that any significant progress will be made so long as education is publicly financed and run.
Solving the drug problem will also necessitate changing our welfare system so that it doesn’t breed indolence and hopelessness. That is much easier said than done. And we will need to open up our labor market so that even those with few skills will have a chance at finding jobs.
I don’t know if these changes by themselves are sufficient to eliminate the drug problem, but I am confident that they would reduce it greatly. Without making these changes, it is doubtful that significant progress can be made.
People in the free market movement have been advocating privatization of schools, welfare reform, and repeal of labor market interferences for years, and despite impeccable arguments have made little headway against determined opposition from powerful special-interest groups. We may be more successful in overcoming that opposition if we can show how much is at stake—a United States without a serious drug problem.