not dangerous, just poorly thought out…

September 4, 2010

Big Think just finished its Month Of Dangerous Ideas, which was a series of daily articles outlining concepts frequently brought up in abstract debates about society, science, and the environment, and quickly dismissed or shut down in practice. From eugenics and infant euthanasia, to taxing the obese and knocking down cities and farms to re-create the wilderness we colonized, the articles didn't shy away from controversy and laid out the cases for and against the ideas in question. And when reading those articles, it's interesting to note what makes these ideas invalid to anyone tasked with turning them into action. It's not that many of them are really dangerous or inherently evil, but that they're often woefully under-thought and sound like something you might mention on a night out with your friends in a bar, when the conversations start venturing into random what-ifs, rather than elaborate, detailed and planned out ideas ready to be turned into a law, or a real world project.

For example, take the idea of taxing the obese for hauling around extra pounds. Since they usually tend to be afflicted with chronic health problems related to their bulk and generate more medical expenses, should they have to pay society for taking care of them? But as the case against notes, just enforcing this tax would be so expensive, the incoming revenue wouldn't offset it. And besides, how do we determine who is to be taxed? By using BMI, which is a highly questionable method of measuring health? Do we have to line up all adults in the developed world and have them report for an annual BMI check? How expensive and time consuming will this procedure be? On top of that, as we discussed before in regards to the soda tax, vice taxes may come with an unintended effect; legitimizing a behavior we want to control through fees. And just to round it off, how many voters who chant anti-government slogans at the slightest hint of taxes will call for a politician's head if he or she were to try and introduce a bill for such a tax? It would go down as one of the most one-sided votes in history. Dangerous idea? More like an off-the-cuff statement relegated to the realm of abstract debates.

Similar issues apply to the actually dangerous idea of legalizing all drugs. I know there are nations which are said to legalize soft, recreational drugs and which had marked success in bringing down addiction rates. But the reality is that these soft drugs are not so much legalized as merely tolerated in certain contexts. There are complicated laws about their use and while they are far more forgiving that those in the U.S., they don't simply let anyone take whatever drugs could be found on the street. The idea that letting people take drugs because their body is their own and they should be responsible for the consequences sounds plausible at first glance, but doesn't translate well into practice. With that attitude, we could say that people are also welcome to drive as fast as they want, or buy any military grade assault weapon on a whim, including rocket launchers, and try their best to police themselves. But in reality, we tend to skirt laws all the time and see with what we could get away. Even with speed limits and anti-drunk driving laws, people still speed and drive drunk, killing others in the process. What happens when we start completely removing all these restrictions? Same goes with drug abuse. Even though narcotics are illegal, millions still use them. Why let someone roam the streets while so high out of her mind, she's having hallucinations and panic attacks?

Really, we could go on and on with virtually all of these concepts, including the notion of bringing back the old, failed pseudoscientific doctrine of eugenics, something I've rebutted a number of times in detail. Time and time again, we'll find the same problems behind them. Shaky, one-off, over-generalized research. Ignoring all the complexity and nuance of the world in which these ideas need to be implemented. Lack of practicality. To call these ideas dangerous implies that we should fear them, or that we may one day face their implications. But the reality of the matter is that the odds of a fat tax, a legal free for all for drugs, or any of the other notions highlighted by Big Think coming to pass are infinitesimal, or simply nonexistent. Maybe this series should've been called A Month Of Overly Simplistic Thoughts We Hoped Would Be Controversial Enough To Bring In A Few Extra Hits. Though on second thought, that doesn't quite roll off the tongue nearly as well…

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  • > With that attitude, we could say that people are also welcome to drive as fast as they want, or buy any military grade assault weapon on a whim, including rocket launchers […]

    I’m afraid some of these analogies are off the mark. Driving recklessly on public roads directly and physically endangers others besides the driver. Drug use does not.

    With firearms, there’s a similar disconnect. Assault rifles and rocket launchers are specifically made to kill human beings and destroy large, fortified structures. The concept behind prohibition of these items is that these are tasks that the average citizen should not be independently pursuing. Rather it is under the purview of the state. Drugs are not solely functional as an agent of harm and, in fact, rarely used for that intended purpose.

    There are a lot of good reasons why all drugs should not be completely legal and access unrestricted, but these are not in their number.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Though generally a proponent of pot legalization, I’ve lately been wrestling with the following dilemma.

    A stoned person has no more business driving a vehicle than does a drunk. When someone is pulled over for erratic driving, we have a field test (“breathalyzer”) that gives fairly reliable results indicating whether or not that person has consumed more than the legal limit.

    We also have tests (though not so easily administered by the side of a public street) that reveal (alas, reportedly with a lot of false positives) whether an individual has ingested THC. However, those tests are too sensitive for some purposes, often pointing the finger when the testee was exposed to pot weeks before and is no longer “under the influence” – at least to the point of impaired driving.

    The subjective impression of any given police officer is often accurate, but such testimony has been abused so often that courts, rightfully, demand more in the way of evidence. If any of the current state-level pushes for decriminalization succeed, this particular conundrum is going to be a non-trivial problem rather soon.

  • Greg Fish

    I’m afraid some of these analogies are off the mark. Driving recklessly on public roads directly and physically endangers others besides the driver. Drug use does not.

    Actually, I wasn’t trying to compare drug use to drunk driving. That wasn’t the point. The point is that we all should be able to police ourselves by realizing that if we’re drunk, we shouldn’t drive, that if we have guns, we should be very careful with them, and so on. But that’s not what happens in the real world.

    Driving drunk and driving high isn’t much different. Alcohol itself doesn’t harm anyone but your liver. But if you abuse it on a constant basis, it eventually starts affecting your behavior, hurting others. Same with drug use. If today, there are people driving drunk, which you note as being a direct physical danger to others, would we not face the very same problem with legal drug users, deciding to drive their cars while high?

    As for weapons, when in the hands of private citizens, they’re supposed to be used as a deterrent to crime. Going around and threatening someone with a gun for any reason other than to defend yourself from a crime in progress will land you in jail, as it should. The active harm/passive harm argument doesn’t really cover the issue here.

  • Bruce Coulson

    The real question in many cases (and the hardest one to answer in the controversial ones) is ‘how much does action ‘x’ adversely affect me?’ (Either actively or potentially.) Does someone’s being overweight affect me enough to even justify MY interference in their lives? (As opposed to, say, insurance carriers charging higher premiums.) What are the actual chances that someone who has been smoking marijuana will jeopardize me as opposed to someone who has drunk too much alcohol? (Quite minimal, actually…)

    And then there’s the implementation issue; even you decide an action is too dangerous to permit, how are you going to limit that action? (cf Prohibition in the United States for the classic example of failed, even disastrous, implementation.)

    Finally, the idea that ‘ideas’ are dangerous strikes me as a bad concept. Poorly thought out, possibly; impossible to implement, maybe; but dangerous?