Vice Squad
Friday, November 23, 2007
Regulating Vice: The Introduction (part II)

The Introduction proceeds by discussing a typical vice policy dilemma, that of Zero Tolerance versus Harm Reduction. First, imagine that vice activity has no benefits at all -- then the social goal, presumably, would be to decrease the total harms, or total social costs, of vice and vice policy enforcement. Drawing upon MacCoun and Reuter, Total harm = [# of vice incidents] times [harm per incident]. It looks as if reducing the number of vice incidents is a good way to reduce harm, but there is a catch: in practice, policies aimed at reducing vice incidents simultaneously increase the harm per incident. [Zero tolerance policies are among those that hope to reduce the number of incidents.] Under alcohol Prohibition, for instance, drinking went down, but the drinking that remained tended to come at high cost, including poisonings via adulterated beverages and crime and corruption. So even if you ignore the benefits of vice, it might be desirable to adopt policies that accept some vicious behavior, in order to reduce harms per incident and potentially, to reduce overall social costs. Thus it makes sense to consider policies such as the provision of clean needles to heroin addicts, or drug legalization, as possible methods to reduce overall costs.

The harm reduction versus zero tolerance trade-off exists in a wide array of social policies. One that has recently been in the news concerns the provision of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Such policies probably decrease the social cost per illegal immigrant driver. Opponents stress, instead, that license availability in some sense subsidizes illegal immigration, so the number of incidents of illegal immigrant driving might go up.

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