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The impulse to ban

August 8, 2013

This is just a little observation regarding how quick we are to rush to the assumption that a government ban is an appropriate solution to any problem.

I was reading a non-drug-war-related piece over at The Reality-Based Community (about cell phone use while driving and a train accident somewhere) and had a comment exchange that I found telling in this regard.

Pete Guither says:

I find it interesting that you seem to combine two very separate thoughts into one in this post. The first thought is that cell phone use is a dangerous distraction, don’t do it (just turn it off). The second thought is that legislation is needed. Yet no attempt is made to connect the two.

This is just an observation, not necessarily a criticism — after all, you may have independently considered the evidence and concluded that legislation is the proper course and just felt that this wasn’t the post to share that information. It seems to me that a proper intellectual analysis requires that we establish 1. that legislation would solve or significantly reduce the problem, and 2. that legislation is the only, or at least the best, solution to do so. Who knows? Maybe education or peer pressure would be more effective. Or maybe legislation is actually the best approach.

This is such a common thing we do. We have a strong tendency to operate on the horribly flawed “this is bad: therefore, legislation” syllogism. It’s given us decades of drug war, endless fights over abortion and all sorts of other societal problems. And legislation we do pass oftentimes ends up failing to fix, or even exacerbates, the problem.

It would be nice if we took more time to first ask the question, “Is this problem best served by legislation?”

Commenter J. Michael Neal says:

How else do you propose to ban cell phone use while driving?


I clarified:

In case it isn’t clear, the actual question is: “How do you propose to have people stop using cell phones while driving?” And no, that is not the same question.

J. Michael Neal says:

We disagree on your last sentence. Absent a ban you might reduce people using cell phones while driving but you will not stop them. If that’s what you want to do, a ban is your only option.

Yes, he actually believed that stopping cell phone use and banning cell phone use were the same thing!

Now, on the other hand, the post’s author, James Wimberley, at least realized that “ban” is not equal to “stop,” but justifies going into automatic ban mode anyway.

James Wimberley says:

The costs of a ban are very low, and the conduct stigmatized is clearly dangerous to third parties. A low success rate would still meet a cost-benefit test. I think the onus of proof is on the opponents of legal bans. [emphasis added]

Onus of proof on the opponents. That’s a concept! A pretty ugly one. And what if it turned out that some approach other than banning would have a higher success rate? That would throw your cost-benefit test out the window.

You don’t have to be a libertarian, or otherwise opposed to large government, to desire proper analysis of a problem and its potential solutions before rushing into a ban.

Yet the impulse in the general population is to ban, whether they are on the left or the right.

Those of us involved in drug policy reform have seen so clearly first-hand the unmitigated disasters that can come from the rush to ban, and so are less susceptible, perhaps, to that impulse. But we need to help others see that banning is not equal to stopping the problem, or we’ll have a hard time convincing those who believe drugs are a problem that legalization is actually better.

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Pete Guither is the editor of



August 2013
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