Why our world is so harsh for so many

The world is a complex place and any simple description of it will be incomplete, but I think it is fair to say we are the subjects of an artificial system of theft and oppression that continues to make the world harder to live in.

Look at the sources of power in the world. Look at government, corporations and the media. Laws written for rich people have created a system where it is necessary for us all to sell our labour to the owners of businesses. They own the land, the factories, the offices, the infrastructure. We need to earn money to survive and the best and sometimes only way to make money is to work for a large corporation. We make money for the people who own and run the corporation and they give us back some of it. Next, the government takes its share, claiming it needs it for roads, schools, hospitals, pensions and security, and gives as much as it can (for example through contracts) to corporations. It does not give people a choice to keep that money, decide what to do with it themselves and get what they need through mutual aid (helping each other) like they used to. Some people work their whole lives making others rich and still end up penniless. Why? Because they didn’t work hard enough? Because they were evil in a past life?

The media tell us to consume. The remaining money we have earned, the last bones we have been thrown, we are encouraged to spend on things that make us feel rich: nice houses, cars, furniture, decorations, restaurants, two-week vacations and fancy coffee. Consumers spend their lives working for corporations and giving most of their money back to them. Instead of pursuing their dreams, they work hard in order to spend hard.

I understand people who do not do anything about it. Politics can be pretty boring. I disagree with people who say you should pay attention to politics even if you are not interested in it. You should not be compelled to pay attention to the news and what it tells you the people in power are doing. If they do not have your consent, they should not spend your money or pass laws over you. Moreover, most of the people who expect you to follow politics pay attention to the wrong things. They watch party nominations and election results and contribute to political parties and candidates who never make any real changes. But the media tell us those are the important things. That is how we can make a difference. There are no alternatives, except competing warlords or some USSR/North Korea nightmare. The system works. Stop questioning the system.

Enormous power is thus concentrated in the hands of only a few thousand people, most of whose names you and I have never heard before. A few million or so more wield power on the national level in different parts of the world with some autonomy (think the generals in Egypt) but they have mutually beneficial relationships with members of the upper ranks of the global elite. Look at what the elite do with their power. In the old days, a king would send soldiers somewhere and thousands of people would die. They had power over small parts of the world. Nowadays, power has become global, and as such the crises it leads to have gone global as well. Look at all the (supposedly unintended) consequences of all the wars the US government has been leading, all the people who have been tortured and killed, or who lost their homes and their livelihoods, and continue to do so even after the foreign militaries have left. And yet, consider who has got rich from those wars. Look at the economic carnage from the last financial crisis. Look how many people lost their jobs, homes and all their money, all around the world. And yet, the people who caused it actually made more money from it. And they tell you not to worry, because there will be an economic recovery. Do you believe them? Where is the justice?

Finally, “education” tells us what to think. I’m sure you can think of reasons why the system we live under is the best possible system. You learned it in school, and if you learned it in university like I did (political science major), you have even more reasons why it works best. We need leaders because without people making our decisions for us, society would collapse. We need rich people because without them, who would start businesses for us to work in? We need police to protect us from all the bad people around us. We need hierarchy: all societies have hierarchy, right? All other ways of living go against human nature. Don’t think too much about it: watch TV instead.

As far as I can tell, most people are neither interested in understanding the system nor willing to take the risk of fighting it. Again, I understand and I don’t judge. I just think they should understand it better than they do. If they choose to do something to change it or to change their circumstances, that is their choice and I will support them. I warn you, however, if we do not fight back, one day it will be too late.

The Rule of Freedom

The second (and final) edition of the Rule of Freedom: the Manifesto of the Sovereign Community has been published. The full volume is now available for free here. Though it has grown out of my other blog, it follows some of the themes of this one as well.

Table of Contents
Part 1: Voluntaryism and democracy
– 01 Why I am a voluntaryist
– 02 Why more people are not voluntaryists
– 03 Morality and the non-aggression principle
– 04 The problem with democracy
– 05 We need to be forced: human nature and the Leviathan
– 06 The difference between government and leadership
– 07 Propaganda
– 08 The fine line between democracy and dictatorship
– 09 Somalia
Part 2: The state
– 10 What is the state?
– 11 Power
– 12 Law
– 13 Taxation and debt
– 14 Elections
– 15 Interest groups and lobbies
– 16 Bureaucracy
– 17 Let’s reform the system!
Part 3: Security and war
– 18 Police
– 19 Guns
– 20 Terrorism and airport security
– 21 The War on Drugs
– 22 Immigration and borders
– 23 Nationalism
– 24 Democratic wars
– 25 War: Counting the costs
– 26 Support the troops
– 27 Why do we still go to war?
– 28 Afghanistan
– 29 Secrecy
Part 4: Don’t fear the free market
– 30 What the free market is and what it isn’t
– 31 Rich and poor
– 32 Government knowledge is not superior knowledge
– 33 Intervention, central banks and planning
– 34 The armed corporation
Part 5: The sovereign community
– 35 Has anarchy existed before?
– 36 Roads
– 37 Education
– 38 Health
– 39 The environment
– 40 Polycentric law
– 41 Agorism and counter-economics
– 42 Mutual aid
– 43 Contract-based communities
– 44 Breaking free

Two essays on the causes of Egypt’s revolution

Having completed my second semester at grad school, here are two essays on the causes of the January 25 Egyptian Revolution.

The first is about how the Mubarak regime came to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. Egypt had been called a paragon of neoliberalism. If that was indeed the case, without reducing the power of the state, neoliberalism is bound to be disastrous.


The second essay shows how street protests and online activism in Egypt led to the January 25 revolution, and the extent to which police brutality fueled this activism. It goes through a history of protests and police reaction, explaining the power of the police in the process.


Two essays on Occupy Wall Street

For my master’s programme at the American University in Cairo, I have just completed two essays on Occupy Wall Street. The first describes America’s ruling class using elitist theories of political science.


The second describes the crisis many Americans face and how it gave rise to the movement.



Why war is wrong, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

An assessment of US drug war policy: no victories, only failure

What is the purpose of law? To promote justice and eliminate injustice, or to promote violence and corruption? US federal drug laws do the latter, domestically and around the world. This post is an assessment of the effects of the War on Drugs on the world. If you cannot stand the sight of blood, look away.

American demand

The criminalisation of drugs began with alcohol prohibition in the US. Dr Hamilton Wright was named a delegate to the US-initiated International Opium Commission of 1909 and soon started pushing for the prohibition of all drugs. To do so, he sought out evidence of enormous numbers of drug addicts in the US, which there were not, and made up figures where the real ones were unconvincing. At the time, narcotics were dealt by doctors. After a few maneuvers around the constitution (that annoying thing again), Wright had the federal government terrorise physicians into compliance with his ideals.

Meanwhile, Wright pronounced liberally on the “drug-crazed Nigger”, fanning the flames of racism with lies we would scoff at today. “Cocaine,” said Dr Wright, “is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes”. Because of the sea of propaganda, a country that in 1900 looked at drug addicts as unfortunate medical cases saw in 1920 a horde of “drug fiends”, twisted, immoral vampires.

The Anti-Saloon League lobbied for 30 years for prohibition. When they finally succeeded, they issued a statement saying that “an era of clean thinking and clean living” had begun. Unfortunately, the reverse was true. Crime rose 24% in US cities in the first year of Prohibition, and the courts were soon overwhelmed. (Sound familiar?) Historian Andrew Sinclair says “National prohibition transferred $2b a year from the hands of brewers, distillers and shareholders to the hands of murderers, crooks and illiterates.” Police killed gangsters, but they could not get them arrested, because witnesses were afraid to testify against them. Because criminalisation did not affect demand, prices did not change and more people entered the black market to replace those who were shot. Moreover, because the restrictions on, say, selling alcohol to minors, were removed, underage boys and girls could get liquor without being carded. The moral and logical arguments for criminalisation of hooch had already fallen on their faces.

After Prohibition ended, the people needed a new enemy, and in the 1930s, the lies began flooding the press about marijuana. For instance, marijuana was said to induce murder (perhaps the best known example being “Reefer Madness“), and children were said to be buying it in droves. The racism had not abated, of course, and charismatic spokespeople without consciences were now accusing Mexicans of bringing in marijuana and driving everyone crazy (though the N-s weren’t spared the groundless accusations either). Legislation got harsher. Jail times rose, police powers expanded and nothing changed on the street.

The War on Drugs is based on lies. If Reefer Madness were not enough, here are two more examples. Take Richard Nixon. When Nixon came into office, his opponents–in short, hippies–were of the cannabis culture, and Nixon’s reputation for petty vindictiveness can be seen in his approach to marijuana. In order to scare everyone, Nixon’s government fabricated numbers. According to their data, the number of drug addicts rose from some 70,000 in 1969 to 500,000 in 1971. Upon completing a survey, the Bureau of Narcotics thought the latter figure was off by about 800%. Second, remember “crack babies”, the 375,000 misshapen, ineducable freaks that were going to populate the US? They turned out to be as real as Negro Cocaine Rape. But they scared people into supporting the drug war, so the idea alone served its purpose. On the other hand, the lies have been counterproductive in other ways. By the 1990s, kids in the US were so used to grown-up scaremongering that they assumed all the tales about how bad heroin was for you were lies too. Next thing you knew, the rate of heroin addiction had jumped 20%, and the number of heroin-related emergencies doubled between 1990 and 1995.

The War on Drugs has been called racist, a claim that could easily be brushed aside if not for evidence. Today in the US, most drug users in all categories are white, yet blacks run a 500 percent greater risk of being arrested for drug offenses. By 1990, black men and women were 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to the authorities for drug charges.

The War on Drugs brings the US in constant conflict with the constitution meant to contain it. The US Constitution starting eroding long before the Patriot Act. Police seeing black teenagers walking on the street might throw them up against the wall and search their pockets without justification, which breaks the Fourth Amendment against arbitrary search and seizure. Even if they find drugs, the police cannot simply take it to a judge, tell the judge “this kid looked suspicious so I searched him” and expect a conviction. As a result, there are innumerable cases in which police claim that the suspect dropped a suspicious-looking bag on the pavement, which is perjury. (For more on police corruption, see here.)

The figures speak for themselves. The US murder rate peaked at the end of alcohol prohibition, shot up again at the end of the 1960s and has barely moved since then. The US federal drug war budget steadily increased by billions of dollars annually and has shown no results. The national prison population doubled between 1976 and 1986, and nearly quadrupled in the following decade. The numbers have not decreased since then. The facts are unequivocal: prohibition does not work.

Latin supply

What is the US government trying to achieve with its policy of tackling drugs at their source? It seems to be trying to eradicate the supply of drugs, but that is futile while demand is still high. Efforts must then be put into disrupting the supply of illicit drugs, driving up the retail price and reducing demand, right? But after three decades, billions of dollars of effort and many dead drug warriors, prices are down. The 2001 price of heroin is 20% of that of two decades earlier; the price of cocaine barely a third of its former price; and the price of marijuana way off its 1991 peak. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says “[u]ltimately, the prohibitionist approach is an attempt to repeal the economic law of supply and demand, and therefore it is doomed to fail.” The illegal drug trade, also despite all the effort expended (or perhaps even because of it), has gone global.

In 1969, Nixon commissioned a task force to recommend eradicating Mexico’s drug crops. The Mexican government said no, and Nixon took revenge. He deployed two thousand customs and border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border to conduct an enormous search-and-seizure operation. The desired effect–chaos–was reached.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency softened on drugs, and since then drug warriors have been seething, attempting to establish cause and effect relationships between Jimmy Carter’s supposedly lax drug policies and the rise in drug use during his presidency. Eleven states decriminalised private marijuana use without the federal government breathing down their necks. Nonetheless, during that time, the US government continued to put pressure on Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to end drug cultivation, a baton that Ronald Reagan could pick up when he assumed power. Reagan made it clear that the War on Drugs would be a big priority of both his domestic and foreign policy.

Conservatives held up drug use as the reason for the upsurge in crime in the US (though the real culprit was obviously drug law enforcement). Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL), for example, said drugs were “the single most threatening menace to civilization today.” But despite such alarmist rhetoric and poor sentence structure, drug consumption did not decrease. They decided instead to try to shut off the supply. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) blamed the administration for not waging a sufficiently serious War on Drugs. His criticism evinced the increasingly militant attitude of Democrats and Republicans alike toward drug-source countries in the mid-1980s. Drug laws got harsher, including instating the death penalty for major traffickers and life in prison for repeat offenders. Between fiscal years 1980 and 1987, US spending on countering the international narcotics trade tripled. Yet by 1989, the DEA earned more revenue from seizures than from its congressionally-allotted budget.

The government’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) on the drug trade said that, not only were drugs corrupting governments, insurgent and terrorist groups were cultivating them to finance their operations. Revelations that the Taliban, NATO’s latest insurgent enemy, have done the same should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the drug war. The same directive insisted on an escalation and further militarisation of the drug war. A CBS-New York Times poll of April 1988 found that half of respondents believed drug trafficking was the number one problem in the world. Washington had both the will and the popular mandate to ramp up the War on Drugs. Government spending on drug law enforcement went from $1.2b in 1981 to more than $5.7b in 1989 (the days of Reagan’s small government promises). Ironically, though not surprisingly, both usage rates of and violence connected to drugs rose during the same time.

The implementation of the directive effectively securitised drugs, which means that drugs officially became a threat to national security, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The military was enlisted to help even in domestic drug law enforcement. For instance, one law asked the navy to secure borders against all vessels containing narcotics. Such a suggestion was ludicrous, of course, as even attempting to do so would have destroyed trade and diverted drug smuggling to other routes. A lot of the billions of dollars sent to Latin America went to militaries, which Galen Carpenter calls “an extremely dubious strategy given the long history of military coups throughout the region.”

Much of Reagan and Bush’s efforts had centered on Peru. Peru is a natural haven for coca plants: they grow like grass in the vast jungles and even on the sides of cliffs. American officials encouraged Peruvian farmers to grow rice, tomatoes and beans. But such crops require time and money to cultivate, whereas the coca plant just needs air. Coca plants last forty years and are harvested every ninety days. Farmers in Bolivia planted various crops for cash incentives from the US, but by the end of the season they returned to coca because supply of fruit, nuts and ginger had far outstripped demand. Who needs tomatoes? Moreover, the buyer comes to you and does not bother with taxes, customs or paperwork. Smuggling is so easy because, according to a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, “[f]our Boeing 747 cargo planes or thirteen trailer trucks can supply American cocaine consumption for a year.”

As US officials put pressure on their Latin American counterparts, the latter tended to blame the US and suggest that the problem was on the demand side, rather than their side. They saw the US sense of urgency as self-serving, aiming to put Latin Americans in harm’s way to stop Americans from doing drugs. Moreover, many Latin American cultures differed from that of the US in terms of its taboo on the use of narcotics. Peasants in the Andes have been chewing and brewing tea from coca leaves for centuries. Jamaicans and various Latin American countries accept casual marijuana use as part of the culture. Why would they forcibly change their culture for a bunch of self-righteous Yanks?

Many officials were also colluding with drug cartels. Manuel Noriega is the obvious case; but before he was even indicted (and thousands of Panamanians killed), many high-level members of Panama’s government and Panamanian bankers were making money off drugs. The invasion of Panama in December of 1989 was portrayed as an anti-drug effort, to take out Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s friends in the State Department had looked the other way on his drug trafficking, but by 1989, because of the administration’s anti-drug rhetoric and the mounting evidence against Noriega, doing so had become politically untenable.

Ronald Reagan and the law-and-order promises he made were no better than Nixon, imposing yet stronger drug laws, killing and arresting people all over the place and taking the War on Drugs worldwide. George H.W. Bush had been Reagan’s point man for the anti-drug campaign, and after eight years of nothing to show for it, he told the American people, “Take my word, this scourge will stop.” Yet, how did Bush have the power or even the moral authority to stop it? Bush’s government had known for some time about contra drug smuggling and Noriega.

In November of 1989, the US Justice Department issued the alarming legal opinion that the US military had the authority to pursue and arrest drug traffickers overseas, even without the host government’s consent. Soon after its invasion of Panama, which the Bush administration touted as a victory over the drug scourge, the US stationed a fleet of aircraft carriers off the coast of Colombia, without the Colombian government’s permission, in order to apprehend Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious of the billionaire kingpins who have made their fortune from drugs. Violence in Colombia exploded as Escobar mounted a campaign of horrific terrorist violence to avoid extradition to the US. After a huge effort, Escobar was shot dead, and the flow of drugs did not change. He left behind a Colombia of crooked public officials and fearful citizens.

Where the US government considered the host government’s permission important (Article 173 of Colombia’s constitution states that foreign troops are not allowed to operate on Colombian soil), it applied pressure to obtain it. It became easy for left-wing guerrillas like the Sendero Luminoso to paint governments as American puppets. The FARC and ELN started because Colombian peasants were angered by their government. These are people whose legitimate trades were driven bankrupt by US taxpayer-subsidised agribusiness. Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that, given that the FARC and ELN do not have wide support, their base might have dried up if not for the violence and crop destruction of the War on Drugs. In spite of concerted crop spraying, coca continues to flourish in Colombia, just as it did in Peru in the 1980s. What have been the effects of spraying crops? Toxins emptying into the Amazon basin and increased cancer rates among the farmers. (Learn more here.)

Gustavo de Greiff, Colombia’s prosecutor general in the 1990s, was not afraid of US pressure. The War on Drugs

does not have victories, only failure. Despite spraying and manual eradication, the areas of cultivation have not diminished, only increased. Drug interdiction doesn’t even reach 10 percent of the drugs that reach international markets. We kill the big capos, we put them in jail, we extradite them to the US–and yet prices don’t even move…. We have to study legalisation…. Change frightens people. There are a lot of vested interests in the drug war. There are a lot of people who would lose their jobs with legalisation…. Legalisation is the worst thing that could happen to drug traffickers.

But Ernesto Samper, Colombia’s president at the time, was eager to continue to placate the Clinton administration and not budge on drugs. Outrage at his crop fumigation policies spilled into the streets when 50,000 peasants protested.

Samper was one of countless Colombian politicians who may have attained power partly through drug money. DEA agents in Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia witnessed a large percentage of police and military personnel making money off the drug trade, either by turning a blind eye or even directly aiding it. Prohibition and pressure were making some groups rich. As Americans pressured Latin American leaders to clamp down on drugs, those who did often ended up threatened by the now very powerful cartels.

Despite all efforts to eliminate the drug traffickers themselves, they tend to follow the “push down, pop up” effect: attack them in one place and they will leave for another. Eradication efforts have been useless for the same reason, as any success in destroying crops has simply pushed them to another part of the vast hinterland of the Andes. Interdiction of drugs en route, once again, does nothing, because as the authorities push down on one spot, say on what they believe is the traffickers’ current favourite spot on the US-Mexico border, the next traffickers move somewhere else.

The War on Drugs fills the cold void

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the slipping away of an enemy meant certain US government bureaus, such as State and Defense, would face major reductions in budgets. They needed a new enemy, and a new war. They had the creeping War on Drugs, and seized upon it. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, one Dick Cheney, was one of the high ups who seized on the NSDD’s securitisation of drug trafficking and set about reordering his department to tackle it. During the latter stages of the Cold War, the US’s strategy had been to engage in small wars that were easier to win to contain communism. As the threat from communism receded, the War on Drugs filled the void.

The public generally swallowed the tripe about drugs’ being the US’s biggest threat, and the need for increased military spending to stop it. Drug cartels were seen as evil in the same way as communists had been (and terrorists are today). The ideological elements of the Cold War provided a pretext for US military intervention anywhere there was a perceived communist threat. The equivalent today is, of course, the War on Terror. Also like the other two wars, drug warmongers framed their war as one that could last generations. Between the Cold War and War on Terror, the War on Drugs fit like a glove. It was the ideal justification for intervention.

Huge amounts of aid were handed out to the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru for signing on to the Andean Initiative and pledging to reduce drug traffic. Of course, US government drug war plans did not stretch very far into crop substitution (to the objection of governments on the ground that knew better) or other options beside violence. Since governments obtain their resources by force (taxation), it is natural that they might have a blind spot regarding alternatives to it.

Under Bill Clinton, the War on Drugs led to more Americans in jail on drug offenses, more military assistance to Latin American governments and more military interdiction on the US-Mexico border. Clinton demanded that assistance to Colombia be spent fighting narcotrafficking, as this was the US government’s big concern. However, Colombia has two major anti-government guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, and they are partly financed by the drug trade. (The other part is kidnapping.) These groups frequently work with whichever narcotraffickers are in the region they control. Supplying the Colombian military with hardware and telling it not to use it against groups it is at war with is futile. And after 9/11 of course, the distinction between narcotraffickers and “narcoterrorists” was erased.

Millions of Colombians have been displaced by the fighting, and middle and upper class Colombians have left Colombia in droves. A reporter described lines that “snake around the block near foreign consulates where people stand in line all night seeking visas.” Colombia has received $5b in aid since 2000. The “left-wing” FARC guerrillas have grown weaker but the military-linked paramilitaries have not. 35,000 civilians died during the 1990s, and though 2.5m Colombians have been forced from their homes in the past decade, only a couple of thousand have been killed. As anyone with a newspaper can tell us, the killing has moved to Mexico. Even before the recent escalation under Felipe Calderon, Mexico had had its share of rich drug barons, corrupt policemen and dead victims in the crossfire. Some 23,000 have died in the US government’s proxy drug war in Mexico. (See more here.)

Galen Carpenter explains the conservative attitude in Washington to bad policy. “The attitude of US officials about the progress of the international phase of the drug war has a dreary consistency. Setbacks are ignored or explained away; every sign of success is touted, often to the point of absurdity; and victory is said to be just around the corner–if the current policies continue awhile longer.” What Richard Cowan calls the iron law of prohibition is that, “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.” Marijuana has become more potent (and crack was invented) because traffickers want to reduce the bulk of their cargo. The situation was no different during alcohol prohibition, when bootleggers developed white lightning, the 190-proof crack of the 1920s. Even worse, industrial alcohol, of the sort used to make paint and plastic, was usually added to what was drunk. One can only imagine what today’s street drugs have in them.

The solution

At present, illegal drugs are taxed. However, instead of democratic governments collecting the tax, it is the drug traffickers who collect it. Gustavo de Greiff explains. “As long as the trade is illicit, the narcotraficantes will continue to receive these immense profits that allow them to corrupt everyone…. In 10, 15, 20 years, we will finally arrive at controlled legalization,” he predicts. “What makes me sad is that when this measure is finally adopted we will look back at all the deaths, all the corruption, and everything evil that drug trafficking brought us in the intervening 20 years.”

All kinds of people support legalisation: police, doctors, and if they are not convincing enough, celebrities. Former Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle said “During the past 30 years [the War on Drugs] has grown, grown, grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarisation. This has not gotten people off drugs. And what’s more, if you remove the economic incentive…it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate.” The presidents of both Mexico and Colombia–the countries hardest hit by the consequences of drug criminalisation–have called at least for debate on the issue. Some Americans are listening, hence the California legislature’s recent decriminalisation of marijuana. If more Americans begin to realise the trouble their government’s policies are causing, they will vote to change them. The legalisation of drugs will not make them disappear, as the millions of people hooked on prescription drugs attest to.

Britain and the Netherlands both experimented with decriminalisation. Like in the US in the 1920s, British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin and the government could do nothing about it. What were the results? When Dr John Marks made a survey of Liverpool in 1982, he expected to find AIDS rates of 15 to 20% among heroin users. Instead, he did not find a single case. Another surprise came from local police in Cheshire, who had tracked 100 users and found that after entering clinics, their tendency to crime fell by 94%. Fewer overdoses were reported, and fewer people were trying heroin. One would be correct to guess that all the same harm reduction was reported from the Netherlands. Portugal has had even more success. Can we learn nothing from them?

Winston Churchill once said that “without victory, there is no survival.” A century of failure with one obvious source can be reversed, and victory attained, but not before the end of the War on Drugs.

Galen Carpenter, Ted: Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s futile war on drugs in Latin America
Gray, Mike: Drug Crazy: how we got into this mess and how we can get out

Conflicting news for the future of the War on Drugs

Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico and prosecutor of the War on Drugs, has declared that it is time to debate drug prohibition. It sounds like great news: the first step toward rejecting violent conflict and admitting the facts. Other states in Latin America are gradually following suit, some of whom have decriminalised drugs.

But disturbing news is coming from Canada this week as the Conservative government takes measures to raise punishments on drugs, gambling and prostitution. It is building new prisons to accommodate the undesirables it plans to encarcerate. Against all logic, the Canadian government is cracking down on personal choice issues and using its taxpayers’ money to take away their freedom.

I am on record as stating that I believe the War on Drugs is slowly but inexorably coming to a close. The Conservatives’ move might be a swan song; it might be a continuation of their tough-on-crime, loose-on-facts policies; or it could just be a way of feeding the government’s addiction to the War on Drugs. But if other governments, even Mexico’s, can open the possibility of change, why would Canada’s try to push more crime underground? Polls suggest Canadians want at least pot to be legal. Well, sorry Canadians: we are not interested in your views. You work for us. We are the decision makers, and you pay for it.