In mythology, Hercules’ second feat involved killing the Lernaean Hydra, a serpent with countless heads. The defining characteristic of this monster was that with every head Hercules severed, two emerged in its place. This phenomena of two problems created with every one “solved” is incredibly similar to the results of government regulation and intervention in markets. In attempt to stymie one problem, two (or more) are created in its place, making the situation exponentially worse. In Hercules’ case, he quickly realized that his method of haphazardly chopping off heads wasn’t working. Unluckily for the rest of us, this lesson has yet to catch on with regards to government regulation. Worse yet, Hercules’ solution of cauterizing the heads doesn’t apply to our case either. We’re left in a world where the Hydra is still alive and well, and the only tool at our disposal is the sword.
The Hydra Effect, what I’ll be calling this process of government problem creation, is perhaps best exemplified by the War on Drugs. In an attempt to end recreational drug use, the Nanny State instead created a multitude of new problems that are now biting at our heels. In place of letting consenting adults choose for themselves what to put, or not put, in their bodies, the US federal government decided to try to hack its way through the problem of drug abuse. With every swing, new and more awful heads have appeared. Instead of peaceful open markets for drug use, we have scrupulous black markets governed by force. Instead of innovative entrepreneurs in transparent markets, we have violent gangs producing shoddy, and often more dangerous, products with unknown chemicals. In place of a government defending its citizens from actual threats, we have a government imprisoning more and more nonviolent drug offenders. For everything it was meant to “solve,” the War on Drugs has become a beast that no amount of policy making can slay.
In reality, the origin of these problems cannot be traced back in their entirety to the mother head; however, it is even sillier to claim they are not heavily connected. It is no secret that the growth of the domestic police force within the United States is dependent upon the War On Drugs. And characteristic of the Hydra, we see that not only are police departments growing, they’re also arming themselves in unimaginable ways. The militarization we see today in places like Ferguson, Missouri did not start with 9/11, but in fact, with the War On Drugs. The need for fully automatic rifles, flash bang grenades, and other high-end weaponry began with the requests of police departments to fight organized crime and its facilitation of the drug trade. One can only wonder how much of a real problem these gangs would have been had we only allowed the creation and use of drugs to remain legal. The history of prohibition should shed light on this.
All data is indicating that the War on Drugs is failing in its purpose. Drug usage has remained constant in America and drug prices have actually dropped, despite an entire war devoted to its elimination. Yet government continues to fight on against a beast it is not equipped to defeat, and accordingly, more problems arise. Since the beginning of this fight, we have seen prison populations boom. To this day, around 1 in every 4 prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. These individuals have done absolutely nothing warranting of prison time other than being caught with an arbitrarily illegal substance. Rather than focus purely on murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals, we now have a system that focuses on people who have done harm to none. Maybe that’s why a staggering amount of violent crimes go unsolved in the US. Nevertheless, America is now overloaded by prisoners, wastes billions of tax dollars paying for them, and has become the world leader in prison population. All of this was created by trying to stop consenting adults from consuming various substances.
At the precipice of this conflict, a whole other issue has been magnified in America. In combination with police militarization, the incentives for drug related arrests, and high prison populations, we see systemic prejudice multiply under the War on Drugs. Minorities are unjustly antagonized as a group because of awful stereotypes reinforced by such a war, and also by the fact that the wealthy remain immune to the rule of law. This ‘moral war’ is also ripping apart families and communities already at risk, making poverty and racism a violent cycle. It is easier to police populations that can’t fight back politically or financially, and whom are already held unjustly in low regard. Remember, all of this started because the government wanted to make it illegal for consenting adults to use substances it didn’t like.
Musician Bob Wells once humorously said that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite government program.” I disagree. With government, there is no proportionality. For everything it does, there is a multiplier effect of uncountable and unpredictable consequences. For every head of the Hydra chopped off, another two will surely return, and it is past time that we learn from the parable of Hercules. The drug trade is no ordinary beast that we can legislate away into oblivion with a fabricated war. It is an extremely complex market with demands and millions of unpredictable variables known as humans, each with a story and a life of their own. We must stop the violence and find a new solution to our problem. A solution that, most of all, doesn’t involve the force and shortsightedness of the State.