Friday, July 27, 2007
Targeted Legalization as Harm Reduction
From Marginal Revolution, word has reached ex-Soviet Georgia of this New York Times op-ed by economist Justin Wolfers. Wolfers argues that legalizing betting on the outcome of sporting contests, as opposed to betting on "immaterial outcomes like point spreads," would reduce the susceptibility of sports to gambling influences. The idea is that potential insider fixers don't see all that much wrong with diverting an element of the contest that has no effect on the outcome, but might mean a lot to bettors. "To the corrupt participants, point shaving feels like a victimless crime." One might also add that the more the betting is aboveground, the easier it is to detect betting patterns that suggest some underhandedness.
The Wolfers argument is one of a species with suggestions for improvement for virtually all criminalized vices. A targeted legalization -- targeted on the low-social-cost version of the vice -- frequently serves as a harm reduction measure. That is, even if the prevalence of the vice increases, the harms associated with the vicious activity can fall. Whether the precise legalization that Wolfers proposes would have that effect is hard to say, but for currently criminalized vices from hard drug use to prostitution to sports betting, I think that some such targeted legalizations would offer improved outcomes.