Vice Squad
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
 
Three and One-Third Standard Vice Concerns


I first mentioned the standard three and one-third vice concerns on September 21,
and the terminology (OK, my own invention, for what it is worth) magically re-appeared on
September 27.
These concerns are: (1) kids; (2) addicts; (3) external harms;
and (3 and one-third) endangered health and other negative impacts upon
non-addicted adult consumers.

I'll say a bit more about these now, but before I do, let me reveal the punch line,
which I do not otherwise expect to actually get to in today's post: the three and one-third
standard vice concerns are insufficient to justify a prohibition on adult consumption of
our currently illicit drugs, i.e., they do not provide for a reason to ignore or avoid Mill's
harm principle. Once again, that conclusion does not rule out extremely coercive measures:
even 1920s-style alcohol Prohibition did not make adult consumption or purchase or
(for the most part) possession illegal. But the conclusion does rule out throwing people in prison
because they happen to be walking around with a little bit of a substance that they later
might want to consume.

Back to the three and one-third concerns. At first glance, perhaps they look like four concerns.
They only sum to three and one-third, I maintain, because harms suffered by non-addicted
vice consumers (or producers) don't rate as a full unit, equivalent to each of the first
three concerns. The rationality of decisions made by kids and addicts is questionable.
Choices made when some of the costs of those choices are borne by others (i.e., when
externalities are present) carry no presumption of equivalence between private and
public benefit. But if you are a normal adult, why should there be public concern, even
only one-third of a concern, over those aspects of your decisions that do not harm others?

In self-regarding areas other than vice, we generally don't question adult consumption
of goods or activities, even if some risk is involved. If people want to scuba dive, or ski,
or mountain climb, then they jolly well can, even though these are quite risky activities.
While we might want to find ways to make these activities safer, we don't look upon
their practitioners as hopelessly misguided souls. We respect skiers' abilities to judge
the risks and benefits for themselves, and to make their own skiing-related decisions.
But for vice, we might have some concern about the rationality of decisions even by
non-addicted adults: more concern than we have with their skiing decisions, but less
concern than we have for the choices of kids and addicts. Approximately one-third of
the concern, I arbitrarily maintain. Whether the vice is gambling, or pornography, or
heroin use, the standard three and one-third concerns dominate the effort to
construct a desirable regulatory environment.

Now that I have presented the three and one-third standard vice concerns, I still have to make
the case that they are insufficient to support a prohibition of adult consumption or possession of
small quantities of drugs. I won't do that today (I knew I wouldn't get to it.) Rather, I will simply mention
that there are some costs associated with vice that are not explicitly included among my
standard concerns. Perhaps the major one is productivity losses. Sometimes these
are prominently featured when the costs of vice are being tallied: "alcohol abuse
costs so many billion dollars in reduced productivity" is not an uncommon trope. Why do I not
include such costs in my standard set? Well, laziness, video games, skiing, lunch, or almost any
use of time not directly tied to production are also sources of similar "productivity losses". As we
don't know how much productivity we have the right to expect or demand, any calculation of
productivity losses is bound to be arbitrary. Of course, part of the reason that we don't see
calculations of the productivity cost of lunch is because we trust adults to be making rational
decisions about their lunch habits. We are less sure of vice-related decisions. But to some
extent, that uncertainty is implicitly taken into account as a component of the one-third concern
identified above, the negative impacts of vice upon non-addicted adult indulgers. Those users
will tend to have lower earnings if their vice consumption reduces their productivity. Beyond this
implicit accounting, however, we should be wary of counting "productivity loss" as part of the
social cost of engaging in vice, skiing, or anything else.

I could also talk about the omission of tax revenue (from legal vices) in the standard concerns,
but I will spare you at this point. I will note, though, that productivity and budgetary effects
pertain to a whole range of public policy issues. What separates vice from other policy areas
is the centrality of the three and one-third concerns identified above, those dealing with kids,
addicts, externalities, and the costs borne by non-addicted vice participants.

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