The March of Folly | Ott Observations

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The title of this column is also the title of a book written by the historian Barbara Tuchman. 

In her book, she compares four periods of human history, identifying the same pattern of stupidity of government in each period. If you want to better understand how history teaches us lessons, I recommend her book.

As our abortion war rages on, I fear another step in a different march of folly.  Throughout U.S. history when some of us decide something is bad or immoral, we want to legally ban it. We don’t look at why some people want what we think is bad, so we don’t even consider what could be done to reduce demand.  We just pass a law to make it illegal and throw it to law enforcement to rub it out.  

This actually works never.

In 1919, we passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol beverages. I’m certainly no fan of drunks or sharing a road with them. But did we stop the drinking? No, we pushed it underground.  

Demand remained and criminal empires emerged to meet that demand. They reaped tremendous profits for something you can safely and inexpensively buy today in your local grocery store. And they violently defended their windfall money machines.  

Meanwhile, our government never received a dime of taxes from this industry and spent millions to enforce the law with many law enforcers being killed in the process. 

In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the ban. Lesson learned? Nope.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Illegal drug production and distribution to this day enriches criminal empires. Our government doesn’t receive a dime of tax revenue, except where marijuana has been legalized.  

We’ve spent billions of dollars fighting the war.  In 1973, we created the Drug Enforcement Agency as a specialized police organization dedicated to the war. Today, the DEA has a $2 billion budget. We’ve imprisoned over 1 million Americans for non-violent drug offenses, making us No. 1 in the world in the number of people per capita we imprison. 

Yes, we’re beating Russia and China and North Korea. Addiction is an underground epidemic, making it difficult to address.  Demand is higher than ever.  Lesson learned? Negative.

Prostitution is mostly illegal in the U.S. Criminal organizations run it and profit from it – some going to the extreme of importing sex slaves. Women get hurt and killed. 

We spend millions on vice squads and don’t get any taxes. Venereal disease epidemics emerge and are hard to fight because prostitution is another underground business. When AIDS first appeared, it was a death sentence. In Nevada, prostitution is legal, licensed, health check-ups are constant and the business provides the state some revenue. Lesson learned?  Prostitution is still illegal in 49 states.

We can outlaw abortion.  We also know what will happen. As long as there is demand (specifically, unwanted pregnancies), there will be abortion. Criminals will make money. Unregulated medical practices will be unsafe and desperate women will be killed or injured. 

There will be no tax revenue from this illegal procedure and we will spend millions enforcing the law – including locking up otherwise law-abiding and productive Americans.

I am not for alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution or abortion. All of these are human vices, excepting some unwanted pregnancies. If we don’t reduce the demand for any of these and just pass laws banning them, it is the same march of folly Tuchman wrote about.

If we want to reduce vices or things we deem immoral – and I think almost all of us do – we need to be open to creative thinking about how to reduce demand. In the meantime, let’s keep such things legal and visible and responsibly manage them, collecting taxes to pay for our management.  

The alternative is to hand everything over to criminals. Lesson learned.

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