Thursday, August 23, 2007

Prohibitionist rant trashed in the FT Economists' forum (with some help from Transform)

It is gratifying to see that the absurd prohibitionist rant from Joseph Califano that appeared in last week's Financial Times ( 'Drug legalisation is playing Russian roulette' ) has been thoroughly trashed in the FT Economists' forum as part of the paper's ongoing high profile debate on drug legalisation and regulation.

The Califano piece followed two pro-reform op-eds that had appeared earlier, all three of which are covered in last weeks blog , including a point by point critique of Califano's statistical and analytical crimes against reality. It is of course appropriate that the FT allows the different points of view in this debate to be aired, but equally correct that statements made by either side are held up to critical scrutiny. This is precisely what the Economists' forum (for the 'world's top economists') -and indeed the FT's public forums- are for, and is one of the joys of the internet.

I was pleased to see that a comment from myself was included in the Economists' forum. I make no claim to be one of 'the world's top economists', my economics A-level doesn't really qualify me, even with a grade A, FROM BACK WHEN IT MEANT SOMETHING! I do, however, have some knowledge of drug policy, and the forum occassionally accepts guest comments 'on merit' or by invitation. My first comment concerned misunderstandings about the term 'legalisation' but, mercifcully I thought, left the published Califano piece unscathed.

Subsequently, however, Califano posted his entire published FT op-ed (unedited) in the Economists' forum, rather than respond specifically to any of the posts that had been made previously, apparently misunderstanding the the 'discussion' part of 'discussion forum'. This prompted a robust response from Professor William Buiter, author of the pro-legalisation piece that had provoked Califano in the first place. Buiter notes, amongst other useful observations, that:

"I don’t really know how to respond to the long contribution by Joseph Califano, which is more of a rant than a logical and fact-based argument. The non-sequiturs in the way he jumps from the experience of localised liberalisation (in the Netherlands, Zurich and Italy), to the likely impact of global liberalisation are almost painful to behold. Righteous anger is no substitute for reason."
The FT's Martin Wolf then suggested I provide a forum response to Califano's post, specifically its dubious factual content. Since I had already blogged along these lines I posted an edited version of that critique, which was also published. Wolf then notes:
"I want to thank Steve Rolles, in particular, for destroying the factual basis of Joseph Califano's shocking intervention. It is depressing that this combination of hysteria, misrepresentation, intellectual confusion and mindless moralism continues to foist upon our countries a policy with such catastrophic consequences.

Like the Bourbons, Mr Califano has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. He seems totally incapable of distinguishing the consequences of drugs from the consequences of prohibiting them. Tragically, the attitudes he displays continue to sustain a policy that is destroying millions and millions of lives around the globe.

I am encouraged, however, by some of the other comments here, which suggest that people are relearning the good old principle that when in a hole one should first stop digging.

There's not really much to add to that except a general observation that giving hard core prohibitionists a platform seems, increasingly, a good thing, since they do such a splendid job of making themselves look stupid and undermining their own position - especially when exposed to rational debate and intelligent informed scrutiny. Thank you then, the Financial Times.

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