More government stupidity

Libertarians must constantly battle with statists to show how much government activity is counter-productive, pointless, stupid and wrong. But sometimes issues come along that are such obvious examples of government stupidity that no argument is needed.

In the UK recently the government paid nearly 200 prisoners for forcing them to give up the use of illegal drugs in jail.

Specifically, the complaint was that giving up drugs “cold turkey” (ie no phase out, no treatment) amounted to torture and was a violation of their human rights. The jailbirds took the case to court and according to the South China Morning Post the government settled for 750,000 pounds (A$1,850,000). Amazing.

32 thoughts on “More government stupidity

  1. Why were they cut off methodone after only a short period of time? Was this a medical decision or was it because the authorities didn’t think metyhodone was appropriate for prisoners? Denying prisoners medical treatment that is available to the general population does not seem reasonable and, under some circumstances, might qualify as torture. Furthermore, I suspect that methodone is a relatively cheap medication, so cost issues are unlikely to be a problem.

  2. Some were cut off. Some had never been on. I believe it was a financial decision of the individual prison. It wasn’t an ideological anti-drug decision as the govt continue to spend 12 billion pounds on drug treatments for criminals.

    But nobody has a God-given right to methodone anyway. And legislated human-rights should not extend to ensuring junkies continue to get their hits.

  3. My last sentence was a bit flippant and whilst I think it contains some truth, on its own it is too simplistic.

    I agree with John that prisoners, who have been lawfully deprived of liberty, don’t have a right to illicit drugs. And so long as there is no significant medical risk they should NOT suceed in suing the prison for being made to go cold turkey. In fact being deprived of liberty the authorities must assume responsibility for prisoners health and most illicit drugs are not good for your health so there is a clear case for drug prevention in prisons.

    However I do think I would rather be guarding a bunch of happy pot heads rather than a bunch of bored thugs.

  4. Even if we accept there is a case for allowing prisoners access to medical methadone as a means of getting off heroin (which I question), the remedy for their deprivation is not financial compensation.
    Just as the punishment should fit the crime in criminal law, the remedy should suit the civil wrong. There are more options than to issue injunctions in advance or award financial compensation in arrears. It only requires judges to exercise a bit more creative thinking.
    In this case, perhaps a bit more soma sprayed into the air would have been more suitable. Perhaps even a reduced rate on joints, such as a one on three bonus while stocks last.

  5. Here’s a good example of politics trumping policy.

    Who would have thought that offering a non-means tested subsidy (ie. first home buyers grant) would have boosted demand and led to HIGHER HOUSE PRICES – the very thing the subsidy was trying to lessen the effects of? Hmm… I could have told you that without an economics degree…

    Should we turn this thread into a list of government stupidity in preparation for the LDP campaign propaganda?

  6. Sukrit
    the subsidy is a bad policy choice, however I very much doubt whether that was the reason house prices have doubled in the past years.

  7. Preventing access to drugs like methadone is very dangerous. Withdrawal from heroin or alcohol addiction needs very careful monitoring as it can kill people. Methadone is the treatment of choice that helps recovering addicts, though if you would like some insights into the psychosocial dynamics of drug addiction look up “Rat Park”, a famous experiment by Alexander. Withdrawal from most addictions is torture.

    The issue is all the more significant given that drugs are readily available in prison. How ironic, to put junkies in a place where abuse is widespread and as one inmate once said to me: it easier to get drugs in here than out there. By denying prisoners access to medical care the authorities were only facilitating drug use. This highlights what may be real reason for refusing methadone, it was being sold in the prison.

  8. I’m missing your point here John. Which of the institutions involved here do libertarians disapprove of?

    Prisons ? (maybe a few anarchocapitalists, but I don’t think there are many of them)
    Courts ? (ditto …)
    The idea that the state should be subject to law ?
    Human rights ?

    And what remedy would you propose? I’m sure Tony Blair would like the power to annul any court decision of which he disapproved. Is that your suggestion?

    From your comment, I take it you think that governments should be able to prohibit drugs, or at least prohibit access to drugs for prisoners (many of them not yet convicted of anything). Most people would no doubt agree, but then most people are not libertarians.

  9. the subsidy is a bad policy choice, however I very much doubt whether that was the reason house prices have doubled in the past years.

    It is one of many contributing factors, and it should be scrapped.

  10. My original post was misleading. I said that no argument would be needed. What I meant was that no argument would be needed in discussing this with the average person in the street. While I knew some leftists would defend the idea of paying criminals because they were forced off drugs, my point was that this was one of those government activities that Joe Sixpack would automatically find objectionable.

    Having said that, let me briefly answer the left.

    Dead Soul, while withdrawel from using drugs may be painful it is the user that decided to use drugs and they don’t have a God-given right methadone at the tax-payers expense.

    And if the drugs are readily available in prison then the pain of withdrawel wasn’t an issue at all. The issue was whether the criminal should have to pay for their lifestyle choice or whether the taxpayer should. Note that the taxpayer already does pay 12 billion pounds already. And now the taxpayer has to pay more for the court settlement. Do you really find this just?

    JQ — the credible charges were brough under EU legislation regarding human rights (there were other non-credible charges of tresspass). And anarcho-capitalists wouldn’t generally oppose prisons or courts, just public prisons & courts.

    As for remedy, remove the human rights legislation and/or remove the UK from the EU. I presume you’re just being cheeky in asking if my suggested answer would be more powerful government.

    Finally regarding drug legality, I think all drugs should be legal. I just don’t think they should be subsidised by the government. And I definitely don’t think you should be able to sue if the government stop subsidising your lifestyle choice.

  11. I’m not being cheeky, and I’m interested to see another instance libertarians oppose human rights as well as democracy (see the Shock+Horror thread). At some point, you have to decide whether theoretical liberty trumps actual freedom.

    The subsidy question is an irrelevancy. Prisoners already arrange to have their drug requirements/preferences provided by friends and family, and the government puts in in a big effort to stop them. What you’re defending is coercive arrangements to prevent prisoners obtaining drugs by any means.

  12. There is no difference between theoretical freedom and freedom. The problem with human rights legislation is that they aren’t about freedom. They’re a left-wing wishlist of what the world should look like.

    For the most part I have the same wish-list. But I don’t think it should be put into legislation and I don’t call those things human rights or freedom. If we call everything “freedom” then the word has no meaning.

    JQ: “What you’re defending is coercive arrangements to prevent prisoners obtaining drugs by any means.”

    I don’t see where you got this from.

  13. “What you’re defending is coercive arrangements to prevent prisoners obtaining drugs by any means.”

    Prisoners rights are reduced the minute the close the gate. They can’t buy a coke whenever they like by just wlking out the cell. They forefeit most of their rights the minute they’re convicted.

    The right to use drugs doesn”t apply to them.

    This is just a strawman argument and it’s silliness is obvious to a retarded mongoose.

  14. There is no difference between theoretical freedom and freedom. The problem with human rights legislation is that they aren’t about freedom. They’re a left-wing wishlist of what the world should look like.

    You need to draw a distinction between positive rights and negative rights. I certainly think that human rights legislation that protects certain negative rights is a very positive initiative. Such lists are in fact a set of restrictions of executive government. Legislated positive rights on the other hand are an inducement for government to plunder.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_rights

  15. Debates are influenced by the semantics. I don’t accept that the right to be free from violence/coercion is “negative” and I don’t accept the concept of “positive rights” as meaningful at all. In a nutshell, negative freedom is the freedom from violence and positive freedom is the freedom to be (or benefit from others being) violent. The latter is totally undeserving of the name “freedom”.

    The consequence of state violence may well be good. But then such things should simply be called “good” or “utility-enhancing” instead of bastardising the word “freedom”.

  16. Debates are influenced by the semantics. I don’t accept that the right to be free from violence/coercion is “negative” ..

    You can seek to change the semantics or adopt new semantics but you can’t just ignore them. Well actually you could but it wouldn’t be constructive. And in any case the application of terms such as negative and positive in this context is no more meaningful than terms such as left and right; they just are what they are for historical reasons.

    The main point is that there is a clear dicotomy within the list of things that get talked about as “human rights” and the concepts within one class is worth retaining. As is the more general notion of “human rights”.

  17. Terje: “You can seek to change the semantics”

    Thanks. I will. The current idea where you call using violence to get what you want “freedom” is not just an unfortunate change in meaning. It totally undermines the usefullness of the word “freedom”.

    And it’s not really an issue of changing semantics so much as clarifying meaning. So many debates are sidetracked by inadequately defined words or by depriving words from useful meanings. Unless we eventually define some terms and stick with those definitions then ideological opponents will forever be talking past each other rather than with each other.

  18. Don’t you (sic) me fat-boy. Most words could do with a few extra l’s anywaly.

    The definition of freedom used by libertarian is well defined, and you know that. In short, it is the freedom to do what you like with what you own. The limits are implicit… you can’t do what you like with things you don’t own. For example, you may own a gun and a bullet, but unless you own somebody else’s head then you can’t put the bullet there.

    Freedom only loses meaning when you add the concept of “free to have things that seem like a good idea, even if you can’t get them through voluntary action”.

  19. “Don’t you (sic) me fat-boy.”

    Sorry. You are the least deserving recipient, anyway.

    I was just facetiously quoting Dorfl from a Pratchett novel. I take it all back. I’m just not getting my Catallaxy fix at the moment, so am forced to hang around here and on the LDP blog (where I hope I’ve made some constructive criticism).

  20. “(where I hope I’ve made some constructive criticism). ”

    Leftwrites beckons fat head, err i mean fat finges.

  21. You’ve made some reasonable criticisms at the LDP blog ff, though I hope I’ve clearly shown why I disagree with them. I do appreciate the way you approach polite debate with a relatively open mind and look forward to you becoming a full convert to the libertarian cause someday.

  22. JH,

    I agree with you regarding the word “freedom”. However when it comes to “rights” or “human rights” I think it is quite accurate to talk of “rights” that violate notions of freedom. For instance if I say “George washington had a legal right to own slaves” I don’t think I misrepresent the meaning of the word “right”. I don’t think people should have such a right but I think the semantics is reasonable enough. In fact this is exactly the manner in which you use the word when you say that prisoners don’t have a right to free drugs. By your usage you are accepting that “a right to free drugs” is semantically incorrect.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  23. Cheeky. I agree that it is possible to form the sentence “a right to free drugs” but the reason I said prisoners don’t have it is because I don’t think such a right exists.

    It’s also possible to form the sentence “pigs have the right to fly” but it’s not very helpful.

    I concede that the concept of “legal right” is different and can include anything that is currently the law. I was talking about human rights, or what Hume & friends would call natural rights.

  24. John Quiggan says

    From your comment, I take it you think that governments should be able to prohibit drugs, or at least prohibit access to drugs for prisoners (many of them not yet convicted of anything). Most people would no doubt agree, but then most people are not libertarians.

    I do not agree that government should prohibit *all* drugs. Recently on a TV interview it was mentioned that Friedman was in favour of drug legalisation. I think such a sweeping generalisation is dangerous. There are some drugs that are so dangerous efforts must be taken to curtail their use. For example, ICE is an extremely destructive drug, even use of a short period can lead to brain damage. The consequences of this may not become evident for 20 years(common with the brain, cf studies by Heim and Sontag), by which time it will be impossible to determine the actual cause of the disability. The State will pick up the costs of caring for these individuals because of their past bad habits.

    Other drugs however show much lower risk profiles and in my opinion the government would do a far better job of preventing excessive drug use if it adopted a more moderated approach. For example, contrary to what governments will tell you, cannabinoids in marijuana have powerful neuroprotective properties, and if you closely at the studies the evidence for cognitive decline and other problems is problematic at best. There is considerable therapeutic potential in cannabinoids. (cf. PNAS July 1998, Hampson et al, demonstated that even non-psychoactive cannabinoids have greater antioxidant potential than vitamins C or E. Molecular Pharmaceutics, October 6, 2006, cannabinoids protect against amyloid production hence have promise as Alz treatments, or their now accepted use in Multiple Sclerosis). Indeed, there is even a CMJ article demonstrating increased IQ in some marijuana smokers. However, heavy marijuana use in the teenage years carries considerable risks and adults with a history of depression may also be at risk. The other problem, based only on my personal experience, is that marijuana addicts are often boring little tits lacking motivation, memory, and attentional faculties. The research also strongly indicates that consistent marijuana consumption seriously impedes academic performance. LSD is relatively safe and not truly addictive. Ecstasy aint so bad either. (Prior to Timothy Leary’s idiocy these drugs were being tested for their considerable therapeutic benefits, ironically in relation to alcoholism!) None of these drugs compare in toxicity and health risk in relation to alcohol. One psychologist I read even suggested that moderate drug use is a sign of psychological health. The truth is that if you get past the scare campaigns the vast majority of drug users do not have problems. Those that end up in prison are the prominent exceptions.

    If you look at some Australian studies on Hepatitis C infecton in Australian prisons the dilemma is also highlighted. This disease is now the leading cause of liver transplants and has reached epidemic proportions in prisons. Because it can take up to 20 years for symptoms to emerge, by which time typically there is extensive liver damage, released prisoners can act as unknowing vectors for the disease in the general community. This is why many health authorities are literally screaming at governments to find ways to control this problem. The picture is now becoming even more complicated because there is emerging evidence to suggest that hepatitis C can be transmitted by means other than those typically recognised. So fine, don’t give them the methadone and let the State pick up the costs for later consequent pathologies in them and the general community. No thanks, prevention is better than cure. Even in the case of idiots who do use these drugs it is in our interests to minimise the potential flow on costs to us. That or send them off to goal on some remote island after they have been released from our prisons.

    Nor should we assume that all prisoners are abusing their methadone. I agree, it is distasteful that we should subsidise their bad habits but if we don’t it can come back to haunt the general community as a whole.

    Methadone gets people off heroin, the goal is to not give them the drug indefinitely, it rarely is at the clinical level. The goal is to make them drug free. Over the long term methadone treatment is a cost benefit for all of us. Methadone recipients are regularly tested for compliance and well they should be.

    My conceptual point is this: think about downstream consequences. In this context the downstream consequences are bad for all of us. The “Rat Park” experiments highlight why prisons encourage drug use. If not for these downstream consequences I would prefer that we let them go cold turkey and suffer accordingly, I couldn’t care less if they were using drug a,b, or c in prison; just not at our expense.

    By the way, death from alcoholism withdrawal is not about pain, it is about a physiological response to withdrawal.
    —-

    PS: Terje makes an excellent point regarding semantics. There are mountains of research literature demonstrating how powerfully semantics can alter our understanding and responses. Even the order of words in a sentence can influence our responses.

  25. “pigs have a right to fly” may not be helpful but it is semantically correct.

    Setting aside your feelings about the terminology don’t you think that the dicotomy of “rights” into negative and positive, N and P, up and down, liberal or socialist, or whatever taging system you prefer assists in the process of thinking about the issues. I don’t wish to do away with human rights, however I do wish to reform the concept.

    P.S. “progressive taxation” is a semantic construct I find irritating.

  26. If we’re talking about legal rights, I agree it’s possible to have a legal right to (for example) free education.

    But I don’t agree that there is a natural right to education. I don’t think that makes any sense (though I agree it’s humanly possible to type, and perhaps even say, such a sentence).

    When talking about human rights legislation I think we’re clearly talking about natural rights, otherwise it would be tautalogical because all legislation is defining legal rights. I am happy to defend human rights legislation if we’re talking about natural rights (ie the right to liberty, properly defined). Indeed, I think that is pretty much the only laws that should exist.

    But when people start talk about “human rights” to education (or any other similar example) I have a problem. Education is most certainly a good thing and I hope everybody gets a good education. But no outcome (including education) is a natural right.

    Having an outcome as a “human right” is either unnecessary (as the outcome can be readily achieved by using the pre-existing natural right to free interaction with others) or contradicts the human right of liberty (by justifying violent/coercive activity to ensure the outcome is achieved.

    Education is good. There is a difference between what is good and what is a natural right. There is no need for people to re-define natural rights as meaning “anything that’s good”. We already have the word “good”.

  27. John,

    In summary then.

    1. You said:-

    The problem with human rights legislation is that they aren’t about freedom. They’re a left-wing wishlist of what the world should look like.

    2. I said:-

    You need to draw a distinction between positive rights and negative rights. I certainly think that human rights legislation that protects certain negative rights is a very positive initiative. Such lists are in fact a set of restrictions of executive government. Legislated positive rights on the other hand are an inducement for government to plunder.

    3. Following some issue you have with the semantics that I chose to use it now seems that you essentially agree with me. You said:-

    I am happy to defend human rights legislation if we’re talking about natural rights (ie the right to liberty, properly defined). Indeed, I think that is pretty much the only laws that should exist.

    Let me know if there is anything further to discuss.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  28. Oh yeah sure. I agree with you that human rights legislation isn’t necessarily bad. It just happens that the EU human rights legislation at the centre of this discussion is both bad and in my opinion not about “human rights” but a wish-list of good outcomes.

  29. It’s too late to have a bill of rights as the left would pollute such a document with all sorts of worthless shit.

    The only worthwhile document is the US bill of rights, but we would never get that passed the left who now think having Orgasm Day should stand as a natural right.

  30. It’s too late to have a bill of rights as the left would pollute such a document with all sorts of worthless shit.

    If it came to a new body or law or constitutional amendment then on this issue of semantics I am inclined to agree. The term “bill of rights” is a honey pot for do gooders, in no small part because the notion of “rights” as commonly understood encompases not just negative rights but also positive rights as suggested earlier.

    I would propose that we have a constitutional amendment with a more specific name such as “constitutional restrictions to government authority”. It would be a list of things that government can’t legally do and hopefully its very name would work to keep it reasonably pure.

    However I have little idea how you would actually get the necessary political momentum to make it a reality. And I am sure that purity would still ultimately depend on eternal vigilance.

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