Sunday, March 05, 2006

mmmm... forbidden fruit

Image Hosted by A great article from today's Toronto Star provides plenty of reasons to reject the prohibition of drugs or any other item that people may want to consume. Author Taras Grescoe rips prohibition pretty hard right from the beginning of the piece:
When you can't have it, you want it.

It's simple human psychology, but generation in, generation out, governments fail to understand this and try to restrict access to certain goods on the grounds they're harmful, addictive, immoral or demotivating. Then they react with shock when their citizens act like naughty children, breaking the law to get at what they've been deemed too immature to handle. The situation is as absurd as it is wasteful: Punishing and incarcerating people for their appetites and excesses costs governments billions of dollars a year.

Another great excerpt:
Everywhere I went, I saw confirmation of a lesson that humanity should have learned in 17th-century Constantinople (where the sultans tried, and failed, to ban coffee); Enlightenment London (where Parliament, overstocked with brewers, strove to ban imported gin); and jazz-age Chicago (where forbidding alcohol corrupted city hall and empowered Al Capone).

The lesson is this: Ban something and it only becomes stronger, costlier and more coveted than ever before. I've returned from the experience, my liver weakened but my eyes opened, with a renewed disdain for the simple-minded idea we call prohibition.

He goes to provide the examples of Norwegian moonshine, Époisses cheese, animal testicles, Cuban cigars and "smoke-easies" in smoke-free California, Swiss absinthe, and coca leaves to illustrate this crucial point about the futility and danger associated with prohibition. This research was carried out for a book he wrote on the subject titled The Devil's Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit. I was especially interested in the first two examples he provides:
Norwegian moonshine

Outside the Islamic world, no country has a more restrictive alcohol-control regime than Norway. Wine and spirits can be purchased only in state-monopoly liquor stores, most of which are open till 6 p.m. on weekdays, 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays. A litre bottle of Smirnoff vodka costs $63 (Canadian), 86 per cent of which is tax. The 1.14L bottle of the same stuff costs $33 at the LCBO.

The results are entirely predictable: There is extensive cross-border smuggling from Sweden, people make their own booze at home and every drinking occasion turns into a binge. Most disturbingly, the enlightened inhabitants of the world's richest welfare state are reduced to drinking the Scandinavian equivalent of bathtub gin. I bought some hjemmebrent (literally "home-burnt") in a back alley from a massive neo-rockabilly moonshiner; it was noxious stuff, at least 95 per cent alcohol, more useful for lighting fires than drinking. It turns out that I was lucky to escape with only a hangover: Shortly before my arrival, 20 Norwegians died after drinking cheap, methanol-laced spirits smuggled from Portugal.

Époisses cheese

This so-called "killer cheese" is a product that is seen by many as further proof that the filthy French are as sloppy about food safety as they are about driving... except that this is complete nonsense. I visited the Burgundian village of Époisses and discovered that the cheese said to have provoked an outbreak of listeriosis that killed a young woman was in fact made from pasteurized milk.

The simple fact is so-called unpasteurized cheese (which people have been eating for millennia) is perfectly safe if it's well inspected, as it currently is, with almost ludicrous efficiency, in new EU-approved French factories. The danger actually comes from pasteurization, which produces a false sense of security — as in the case of the 224,000 Americans who were severely sickened by pasteurized ice cream in 1994. Every year, 500 people in the U.S. alone die due to listeriosis, most commonly from hot dogs or luncheon meat. But no illness outbreaks have been reported from hard, aged unpasteurized cheeses.

And yet, when I try to bring cheese-lovers in New York some nice Époisses, FDA inspectors systematically chuck it into a garbage bin.

There are, however, two minor portions of the article that detract from the otherwise greatness of it. While discussing animal testicles, Grecoe says the following:
Spain, like Japan, may actually be in need of the curbing of some of its appetites: Its vast, deep-sea fishing fleets are sucking the oceans of the world dry. Sitting over a plate of angulas, or baby eels, which cost 51 euros a serving, I found myself admitting — much to my surprise — that in certain cases, some kind of oversight and control over human appetite is not only justified but essential.

He thinks that some oversight and control is needed? Hmm... and how exactly are the rare instances of such tyrannical interventions that he actually approves of going to be exempt from the inherent flaws and counterproductiveness he reveals throughout the rest of the article? I suppose it'll actually be done right when he wants it to be, eh?

My other quibble with the article comes at the end when he seeks to distance himself from libertarianism by taking a jab at market proponents. He claims to want clean and safe beef and coca and whatnot and feels that government intervention is necessary for such things. Of course, I feel that a free market would provide safer food and drugs, especially since present dangers usually result from either naive faith in corrupt government bureaucracies (such as the ones that scoff at unpasteurized cheese) or practices engaged in by State-backed corporations that would likely be far less prevalent in a free market. This is all a subject for another day though, so I'll leave it at that.

Minor quibbles aside, Grescoe's article is well worth reading, and I'll bet that his book on the subject is good as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if his, and other authors' attempts to "distance themselves from libertarianism", is due to the nutcase reputation the freedom philosophy has. Or if it's simply from a desire not to appear to "extreme".

11:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Anyone who's ever worked in a chicken processing plant and seen the putrid shit the USDA inspectors let pass knows what a figleaf those food safety regulations are.

The meat-packing industry's never been favorable ground for corporate liberalism. They've always considered unions the enemy. So even where unions exist, they're not prone to the same big business-big union collusion against the consumer that plagued the bureaucratic unions of the steel belt.

Which leads up to this: since workers in chicken plants have little to lose from abandoning the conventional NLRB model of labor relations and resorting to old-fashioned Wobbly direct action. A big component of the latter is "open mouth sabotage." The potential for anonymous posting on message boards and discussion lists, letter-witing campaigns to local press and advocacy groups, even posting leaflets around town, is made to order for "swarming" an employer with negative publicity. In the service industry, where the worker has virtually no bargaining power, the employer's public image is the one real bit of leverage he has. If disgruntled workers know how to work that lever, they've got their employers by the short hairs.

2:35 AM  

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