Mexico and the drug war: is it worth it?

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 9: When Mexico joined NAFTA back in 1994 it looked as though, after centuries of undemocratic rule and economic stagnation, Mexicans were going to get an open society – not just open commercially but politically. Those hopes seem to be withering, and a major reason why is drugs. Or rather, the war on drugs.

To most of us, Mexico only makes the news when a Canadian tourist or visitor is murdered – atrocious but apparently random acts of violence. The sad truth is that Mexico is suffering a devastating breakdown of its government and the main reason is the drug trade. Among other things, tens of thousands of Mexicans have died violently since late 2006. And the question every sane person has to ask is: Is it worth it?

To some people, including me as well as Ron Paul, the state telling adults they may not take a harmful substance is wrong in principle so the answer is obviously not. John Locke, hardly a pothead, said we enter society to protect our lives and property and we not only should not ask the state to go beyond that in making other people act the way we want, we can’t, because we can delegate to the state only powers we actually possess.

In a “state of nature,” if no society and government exist, my natural right to self-preservation lets me prevent you from killing or robbing me. So I can authorize the state to do so on my behalf. But since in a state of nature I have no right to use force to stop you drinking beer, smoking marijuana or shooting heroin, I can’t have the state do it for me.

I know a lot of people, including conservatives, don’t agree with Locke. They think the very act of becoming intoxicated, at least with some drugs, constitutes harming others by creating the moral equivalent of air pollution. I’m not sure I see the principled basis of this argument but it persuades a lot of people and I don’t want to tackle it here.

What I do want to say, to anyone anywhere on the political spectrum who favours prohibition of at least some drugs and vigorous enforcement of laws against them, is that to support such a policy in a reasonable way, you have to take into account its costs as well as supposed benefits. Including the enormous damage drug trade money does to governance in other countries, especially poor ones.

To be sure, Mexico’s GDP is around the same size as ours. But its population is nearly four times as large so its per capita income is way less. And especially near the U.S. border the gross revenue of the drug trade, on which estimates vary enormously but go as high as $50 billion, dwarfs the opportunities for legitimate earnings among many people crucially including local police. The drug war has also punched huge holes in the southern border of the United States, and as debacles like Operation Fast and Furious indicate has embarrassed if not undermined the integrity of some American law enforcement officials.

I am not so naïve as to suppose all Mexico’s governmental problems come from drug money. It has been badly governed since before Columbus. Aztec rule was a horror; the Spanish Empire was arrogant, bureaucratic, corrupt and stagnant; independence in 1821 essentially replicated that system on a local scale; the revolution of 1910 ushered in a decade of civil war that killed 10% of the population, followed by the unjust, arrogant, stagnant rule by the tragicomically named Institutional Revolutionary Party.

For NAFTA not just to turn a page in this history, but open a new volume, was a long shot. But the 2000 election of Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party, the first non-IRP president since the revolution, showed how many Mexicans were tired of the existing system and its nationalist/collectivist rhetoric. Whatever you think of the morality, or practicality, of the drug war inside the U.S. and Canada, what is happening now in Mexico thanks to the vast profits of the illegal drug trade is doubly tragic, not merely breaking down law and order but threatening to block long-overdue national reformation.

Perhaps some argument can be made that it is nevertheless worthwhile. But it needs to be made… and I can’t make it.

UncategorizedJohn Robson