Why do societies and their governments passively tolerate bad ideas? Why are so many obviously failed public policies impossible to reform? The list of countries whose governments cannot or dare not confront their policy taboos is long and varied. Take drug policy, as an example.
On June 18, 1971, then-US president Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Drugs are “public enemy number one,” he said. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-governmental organization that opposes the prevailing policies in this field, the United States spends $51 billion a year on the war against drug trafficking and consumption. In 2015, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, formed by a respected group of former heads of state, studied the issue in-depth and concluded that “the global war on drugs has failed and has had devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
By now everyone realizes that tackling this serious problem mostly through prohibition, eradication and incarceration does not work. Even though in recent years some reforms, like the legalization of cannabis, have spread, the war on drugs as formulated by Nixon more than half a century ago is still being waged.
The rigid, automatic defense of the current regime closes off the possibility of exploring other alternatives. None will be perfect but, surely, alternatives that improve on the status quo are out there, waiting to be tried.
Fossil fuel subsidies are another example of a destructive policy that’s impossible to reform. While the world is embarking on an unprecedented effort to decarbonize by reducing oil, gas, and coal consumption, governments are spending unimaginable sums of money to reduce the price of gasoline and electricity – thus encouraging its consumption. According to the International Monetary Fund, the world annually spends the equivalent of six percent of the global economy to keep the prices of fossil fuels artificially low. Experts believe that these subsidies will exceed seven percent by 2025. Governments are stepping on the brake that slows fossil fuel use at the same time that they are keeping their other foot on the accelerator.
Or take the US embargo on Cuba, in place since 1962. The original goal of the US embargo was, and still is, to bring about regime change in Cuba. The idea was that the embargo would weaken the Cuban economy and the resulting popular protests would pave the way for the establishment of a democratic regime. Obviously, this has not happened, and Cuba remains the oldest dictatorship in Latin America. Each year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution demanding that the US lift the embargo. However, instead of weakening the Castro dictatorship, the embargo has served as an excuse used by the Havana government to justify its catastrophic economic policies.
There are plenty more examples. Immigration policy, Europe’s common agricultural policy, labor rules that inhibit the creation of new jobs, easy access to firearms in the United States, bad education policies, outdated UN governance and the ballooning of US military spending are all terrible policies that cannot be changed.
Behind every bad idea exist strong political, economic, cultural or religious interests. For example, we know that energy policy is heavily influenced by large corporations. A recent and revealing fact in this regard is the number of lobbyists representing the interests of fossil energy companies participating in the UN summit on the environment (COP27). This year, there are 25% more “fossil lobbyists” (as the NGO Global Witness calls them) than there were at last year’s COP26 in Glasgow. Only one country (the United Arab Emirates) has a larger delegation than the lobbyists.
The war on drugs has created a huge and well-financed political bureaucracy and powerful global criminal networks that after more than half a century have learned to cohabitate. The economic embargo on Cuba is defended by politicians in the United States who covet the votes of Cuban exiles living in Florida.
Those who benefit from these policies are few, but well organized and amply funded. Those who are harmed are many more, but regularly fail to leverage their numeric advantage to eradicate the bad policies that affect them. But we are living in an age of surprises. In the near future, doing the obvious may not always be so impossible and some of these bad ideas may finally be buried.