The Cost of Demonization and How to Avoid It

In response to my post Can You Change Something if You Don’t Love It? Patri Friedman wrote:

This seems like a good argument for social freedom and harm reduction rather than criminalization, for things like prostitution, gambling, and drugs. If they are illegal, we tend to demonize them, and the people who do them are people willing to do illegal things, who tend to be sleazier. You get a feedback cycle of sleaziness. And then when there are problems (drugs that are bad for you, STDS among sex workers), they are hard to fix.

If instead you acknowledge that these things are going to happen anyway, make them legal and regulated, when problems come up it will be much easier to find smart, competent people who respect drug users, prostitutes, and Johns, and can provide good suggestions for fixing the problems.

Besides being a great point all by itself, it is eerily similar to something Eduoard Servan-Schrieber told me at lunch when he was a grad student at Berkeley. He’d been a sailor in the French navy when he was about 21. Every day, everyone on the ship had lunch together, the officers at the same table as the privates. This was great, said Eduaord, because when a problem came up it was easy to speak with the officers about it. You weren’t scared of them, they weren’t mistrustful of you.

I’ve repeated this story many times. I think there is something basic and biological that makes us trust and work well with people we see regularly and makes us mistrust and work poorly with those we don’t see regularly. When you are in the same company or organization with people you don’t see regularly, great problems can arise, especially if you have power over them or they have power over you.

More. Elisabeth Pisani — the source of the post to which Friedman responded — wrote me, “I agree 100% with Patri, not just on principle but with the weight of the evidence of 15 years experience.”