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John Alcorn

Articles by John Alcorn

Prohibitions: Sex, Markets, and Commodification

November 11, 2019

Each prohibition has its cruxes.  In previous blogposts, we saw that cruxes of polygamy are social imbalance and pre-modernity, whereas the crux of mind drugs is addiction.

The cruxes of sex markets are commodification, stigma, and a complex of coercion, inequality, and discrimination. In this blogpost I focus on commodification, or transformation of goods and services into markets. I’ll cast the net wide, then draw it back to prohibitions.

What is the quarrel with commodification? Bryan Caplan proposes to make sense of politics by a “Simplistic Theory of Right and Left:”
“Leftists are anti-market. [… .] Rightists are anti-leftist.”

At the extreme left, Karl Marx propounds a general critique of commodification. Markets cause objective, manifold

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Prohibitions: Mind Drugs and Policy

October 23, 2019

In my first post about mind drugs, I provided an overview of social-science research about addiction.  In this, I focus on policy.

Let’s set the stage with a striking indicator of the trend of acute self-harm by abuse of mind drugs in the USA. In groundbreaking research, Hawre Jalal and co-authors establish that the overall mortality rate of overdoses (“unintentional drug poisonings”) exhibits a long-term pattern of exponential growth, despite many differences and discontinuities in sub-patterns by age, race, region, and type of mind drug.  The consistency of the aggregate trend is at once astonishing and puzzling:
“The overall mortality rate for unintentional drug poisonings in the United States grew exponentially from 1979 through 2016. This exponentially

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Prohibitions: Mind drugs & addiction

October 9, 2019

Mind drugs
I will focus on mind drugs.  David Friedman provides a useful classification:
“consider four different classes of mind drugs: pleasure, performance, personality, control. Some drugs will fit into more than one category, reflecting multiple reasons why they are used. Consider the familiar case of alcohol. Some people drink it because they like how it makes them feel – pleasure. Some drink it because they believe that it improves their performance […]. Some drink it because it provides a temporary change in their personality that they sometimes desire. And some people feed alcohol to others, sometimes without their knowledge, as a crude way of controlling them.”

Friedman explains that pleasure can be insidious:
“The more we know about how the human mind

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Prohibitions: Polygamy

September 28, 2019

Let’s start with definitions.  Polygamy = Marriage to more than one spouse.  Polygyny = Marriage of a husband and more than one wife.  Polyandry = Marriage of a wife and more than one husband.  Group marriage = Polygamous compositions other than polygyny and polyandry.  Hypergamy = Marriage into a superior class (‘marrying up’).

In 2007-2011, uncertainty about the constitutionality of Canada’s prohibition of polygamy prompted a reference case before the Supreme Court of British Columbia.  Joseph Henrich, an anthropologist, submitted an affidavit, warning that legalization of polygyny would cause major harms:
“A non-trivial increase in the incidence of polygyny, which is quite plausible if polygyny were legalized given what we know about both male and female mating

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Common Rationales for Prohibitions

September 23, 2019

(To read the previous post in this series, click here.)

What may override a presumption of liberty?  Conventions of rhetoric require us to justify public policies by argument and evidence.  Proponents of prohibitions adduce a variety of rationales.  Typically, rationales claim to prevent, reduce, or address ‘bads;’ for example, harm to others, self-harm, inequality, commodification, and slippery slopes.  Cost-benefit analysis takes a broader view and considers also the good or utility from contested behaviors and markets.  In this post, I focus on arguments from ‘harm to others’ (protection of innocent third parties) and from ‘self-harm’ (paternalism).  These rationales have greatest explanatory scope.  I discuss also psychology of prohibition (repugnance and

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Prohibitions: Constitutionalism and Democracy

September 16, 2019

The general institutional framework for policy-making is constitutional democracy.

Let’s start with constitutionalism.  Constitutions are entrenched rules, which are more difficult to change than ordinary legislation.  They can provide general structure and stability.  A constitution establishes the machinery of government, which has three principal dimensions: (a) separate branches or “powers” (executive, legislative, and judicial), (b) checks and balances among the branches (presidential veto, impeachment, judicial review, and so on), and (c) basic political jurisdictions (e.g., Federal Government and States).  Polities with plural jurisdictions can experiment at the frontiers of liberty; for example, a number of U.S. States have legalized cannabis since 2012.

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Prohibitions: Frontiers of liberty & markets

September 13, 2019

For the next ten weeks, I will write a series of posts about prohibitions: frontiers of liberty and markets.  This will be a topic discussion club, inspired by Bryan Caplan’s recent book club about persistence of poverty.  However, we won’t focus on one book.  I will provide links here and there to short, ungated readings about facets of our general topic.

Let’s keep in mind two overarching questions: Why are some behaviors, which don’t intrinsically involve force or fraud, nonetheless outlawed?  And should they be?

We will tackle, in turn, prohibitions in the following areas:
Lifestyles & liberties:
—marriage of more than two persons
—kidneys for transplantation
—prediction markets

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