Saturday, December 11, 2004

Size Matters -- So What?

What the hell is up with this post anyway? I mean, what the hell does it have to do with anything else that I've written about here.

Well, today I'm going to try and link it up. Wish me luck.

To briefly review, the basic thrust of the original post was that the size of a physical object greatly affects the rules to which it is subject. Small objects are ruled by a different set of physical forces than are large objects. As you may recall, I used a few real-world, yet crude, examples to demonstrate this point. There are other, better examples of this phenomenon. For example, anyone who has spent time studying physics will acknowledge that quantum theory (the physics of the very small) is utterly incompatible with classical theory (the physics of everyday size). This is less true now then it was when I was in college, largely due to efforts to discover a unifying theory. But, it is true enough for our purposes here. The point is that using theory developed to explain observed phenomenon on one scale is often inappropriate when the scale changes, especially when the scale changes dramatically.

Now, let's apply this in a more familiar context. Growing up in my family we had what you might describe as a zero-tolerance policy toward drug use. I'm sure we were hardly unique in that respect. There were no allowances for "experimentation" or distinctions made between "use" and "abuse". The expectation was simply that we were to be a 100% drug-free household. As policy for a family, that makes a lot of sense. While I'll admit it did not completely succeed in its goal, it wasn't an unreasonable policy to pursue. And for many families it works like a charm.

As you are doubtlessly aware, this is essentially the same policy that is used by the United States government. How's that working? Not so well. Drug enforcement is enormously expensive. Due to the creation of a black market, it enriches criminal warlords, fuels violence, and spreads corruption throughout the enforcement system. Our prisons are filled with nonviolent drug users, often forcing the early release of violent offenders. Due to the fact that there is rarely a complaining victim accompanying an illegal drug transaction, the police are forced to employ entrapment, unscrupulous informants, and a, shall we say, loose reading of the fourth amendment in order to successfully prosecute violations of drug statutes. And, believe me, this is a short list of the problems that are a direct result of our current prohibition policy. For all that, drug use has remained largely stable over the last 40 years. Politicians frequently discuss their desire for a drug-free America, but realistically we are not now, nor will we ever be, capable of reaching that utopian goal.

Yet, in spite of overwhelming evidence of prohibition's failure, and in spite of its failure in its previous incarnation (see amendment 18), Americans overwhelmingly favor perseverance.

Obviously, there are many reasons why this is true. For one thing, no politician has ever lost an election for being too tough on drugs. Users themselves are a highly marginalized group and are therefore politically inconsequential. And drug abuse is a real problem with real consequences for the individual and for society at large. But, after following a failed policy for literally decades, you would think that enthusiasm for it would wane. Why doesn't it?

I suggest that one underappreciated factor is that we, as a whole, fail to recognize that scale changes the rules. Stiff, zero-tolerance policies work well on small groups. These are the rules we know and enforce in our own lives. Therefore, these are the rules we gravitate toward when we divine social policy. When they fail to work as expected, rather than question the theory, we question their implementation. It takes a tremendous amount of evidence, and an uncommonly open mind, before we're willing to explore other options.

Here's another example: abortion. In many families, abortion is not an option, regardless of circumstances. Within that family, given the fairly homogeneous moral and religious values that most likely exist there, that policy is not likely to create unmanageable problems. Change the scale of policy application and suddenly a substantial portion of hospital beds in our nation are populated by women who endured a botched abortion.

This is not to say, in either the case of drug or abortion policy, that the opposite position (legalization/abortion on demand) is the correct one. That may or may not be true and is frankly beyond the scope of this post. The point is that, whatever policy turns out to be the most effective, it will only be discovered when we acknowledge that insights gained from studying smaller systems have extremely limited application and rarely extrapolate smoothly.

So, I say again, size matters.
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