Why Bans Always Fail

The rules for cooperation in society have developed over thousands of years. They include what may, in a very loose sense, be called a ban on murder, theft, coercion, fraud, and so on. People widely accept them because they protect each individual from aggression of various types. They form a basis upon which trusting, voluntary relationships can be built and upon which society prospers. Neighborly cooperation depends on such respect, and compliance is widespread, not because it is enforced, but because everyone considers them right and good. As such, the rules are not really bans, but rather minimal requirements for civilized society.

On the other hand, some people find particular activities annoying or immoral, even though they don’t inherently violate the rights of others. Those behaviors are not restricted by the universal rules of cooperative society, because they can be done between cooperating parties without injuring others, yet they may subject to bans in some areas.

History is loaded with such bans, and their outstanding feature is that they have never worked as planned and always have negative unintended consequences. For some reason, people tend not to learn from the mistakes of prior generations. They have to learn the lessons themselves. That is unfortunate, because the lessons can be devastating.

The thirteen years of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s should be enough of a lesson in itself for all of the damage it wrought. Its modern equivalent, the War on Drugs, however, 44 years old this year, is an even more massive a failure. Millions of people are incarcerated and millions more are burdened with a criminal record, often destroying their chances for productive, satisfying careers, though they didn’t violate the rights of any other person.

Alcoholism and drug addiction is not what can be legitimately viewed as criminal behavior, and as Portugal has demonstrated over the last 14 years, decriminalization doesn’t lead to mayhem. The addiction and use rates have actually decreased, because they now treat addiction as a health issue. They try to help people rebuild their lives rather than ruin them permanently. Making criminals out of good people can only hurt society.

Black markets are a fact of life. What is arbitrarily made illegal does not suddenly become wrong or automatically stop. It is simply driven underground. Drinkers during Prohibition were no different than those before or after it. The former Soviet Union banned all sales of goods outside of official government markets. The result was that up to 65 percent of their economic activity occurred in black markets. People will get what they need and desire, regardless of what politicians do to prevent it. That is not good or bad, that is simply reality. Black markets, however, empower criminal forces and put people at risk, while the resulting militarization of the police is a danger recognized even by America’s founders.

Price controls, including price gouging laws and threats, are bans on the sale of goods, services, or labor above a price ceiling or below a price floor. There is no inherent quality about those prices that make them right or good. They are just arbitrary decisions of politicians or bureaucrats. Quotas are bans on trade of certain products beyond an arbitrary limit.

The perverse reality of legal bans is that, not only are they ineffective, they hurt more people than they help, often hurting the ones they were enacted to help. It is surely necessary to have rules for social cooperation, but rules that arbitrarily limit behavior because of preferences of influential people are not among them. Those rules actually destroy cooperation and damage society in the long run.

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