Do circumstances make the thief?

The film, “Tropa de Elite”, is enjoying fantastic box-office success in Brazil. Whether or not it was José Padilha’s (the director’s) intention, the audience are presented with a defense of the theory that in order to rid society of a criminal, only another criminal is up to the job. Thus, to end the war between drug traffickers and the corrupt police force, the “caveiras” – professional torturers with the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) – enter the scene.

The tradition of purging through the horror spectacle harks back to the ancient Greeks, but whilst the Greeks believed that our fate was in the laps of the gods, Padilha bases his film on the premise that it is circumstances that make the man.

If this is the case, then why do people act differently under identical circumstances and faced with the same incentives? Consider the following example (in Tyler Cowen’s new book): until 2002, UN diplomats enjoyed immunity from parking violations in New York. Between the end of 1997 and 2002, these diplomats accounted for 150,000 violations. On one extreme were those who parked in illegal spaces and failed to pay their fines. Kuwait had 246 unpaid tickets per diplomat, whilst Egypt, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Senegal and Pakistan all had hundreds of unpaid tickets. On the other hand, some diplomats always paid their fines. They came from Norway, Sweden, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, England and Japan.

The diplomats were all in the same circumstance of having the immunity to park where they wished and to decide whether or not to pay any resulting tickets. The differences stemmed from the values and culture each brought from their home nation. Diplomats hailing from countries where corruption leads to irresponsible behavior generally failed to pay their fines.

Perhaps Padilha is not simply alluding to more immediate conditions and incentives, but to the entire cultural stew in which we find ourselves. He suggests that consumers of drugs are responsible for the violence in Brazilian cities. Well, a world free of drugs has never existed and never will. For millennia, people have consumed alcohol and cultivated opium, cannabis and coca, and the influence resulting from punishing users is minimal.

The UN estimates the global value of trade in illicit narcotics of US$ 400 billion, which is equivalent to 6% of all international trade. Incredible profits bring wealth to criminals, terrorists and corrupt politicians and police. Numerous cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, harbor real States within the State; comprising a situation that would shock even a Godfather from the 20s, when Prohibition in the US provided an incentive for crime and led to the collapse of order in Chicago.

Since 1933, when the US ended Prohibition, it became clear that the experience had been a disaster – a real source of crime and violence. On the other hand, legalizing alcohol led to it becoming regulated and causing fewer mortalities than it had when it was sold on the black market or came from home-made methods.

Today, the illegal status of narcotics is an even bigger disaster than Prohibition during the 20s. The legalization of drugs would lead to drug use being treated in the manner it deserves: as a health problem. Responsible consumers should not be the subject of a public nature and legalization would reduce both the risks associated with unregulated products, as well as mortalities caused by overdosing. Furthermore, it would eliminate the need to obtain the products from criminals and would allow the treatment of addicts as dependents, and not as criminals themselves.

Would legalization open the gates to drug abuse? Well, we already live in a world where alcohol and psychotropic substances of every kind are available. The poor resort to sniffing gas or glue, a habit that is more devastating than the use of any narcotic. In addition, the government would gain another source of revenue, as is the case with the sale of alcoholic beverages, and it could use this revenue to sponsor educational campaigns and treat the illnesses resulting from drug use. The legalization of drugs is a necessary step in the reduction of criminality in Latin America.

9 Responses to "Do circumstances make the thief?"

  1. Guest   October 29, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Well said and explained.I can’t think of a better cause to fight for in the intrenational arena than this one. I hope the legalization of drugs (or should we call it regulation)gets its own Al Gore soon. It puzzles me how these unquestionable truths that you point out are overlooked by politictians and the public opinion. In some ways, I guess some legalization advocates have helped to mantain the current situation by using the “wrong” arguments in favor of legalization. Forexample some of these groups have tried to minimize the health effects of drugs or based their campings on personal freedom. But this are flawed arguments and only have given amunition to those opposed to legalization. Legalization should be defended as a measure against the criminal trade of drugs in first place but as a mean to fight agaisnt the use of drugs with paralels measures like the ones you mentioned.Keep spreading the truth someday it will reach those capable of doing something.

  2. Vitoria Saddi   October 29, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    Eliana, While I agree with your argument on legalization of drugs why do policy makers are usually against it? Why do countries still oppose a broad legalization? For Brazil, don’t you think that criminality may be linked to drug use but possibly to poverty?

  3. Charlie Smith   October 29, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Professor, Your analogy of the diplomats from UN and their attitude towards paying their parking violations to the use of drugs led me to ask you the following questions:1) Do you think that drug use is something that may be overused even if the government legalize them? 2) Do you think that drug users in two countries where it is legal to use drugs, is driven by culture? Similar to the UN diplomats, the ones from rich countries would not overuse the drugs whereas those from poor countries would overuse? 3) Do you think crime in poor countries is something that is more linked to drugs or to inequality?

  4. Ugo   October 30, 2007 at 1:00 am

    Hi Eliana,great post! I have always been pro-legalization, but I think that there is a fist-mover problem. Think about the Netherlands, legalized (or less illegal) drug tends to attract a lot of users from the rest of Europe with some unintended consequence (begging, maybe some extra crime,…). So, legalization would be easier if it were simultaneously adopted by severa countries.ugo

  5. Eliana   October 30, 2007 at 6:37 am

    VitoriaAs far as I know the correlation is not between crime and poverty, but between inequality and crime. The correlation between drgus and criminality is certainly there.

  6. Eliana   October 30, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Charlie(1) yes.(2) I do not know.(3) both.

  7. Eliana   October 30, 2007 at 6:48 am

    UgoGreat to hear from you!I agree. Difficult to move legalization without support in the U.S. Abrac,os, E.

  8. Tom Trebat   October 31, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Eliana, enjoyed your comments. As the U.S. will not in our lifetimes heed your advice to legalize, what other approaches to the problems of drug-related criminality in Rio (or other Brazilian cities) might produce better results in the short-run? For example, is the new governor in Rio thinking in terms of incorporating favela communities into the broader city through better schools and infrastructure? Is anyone looking at the economic costs and benefits of dealing head-on with the criminality in the largest cities? It is as though some competition for the drug business needs to be created in the favelas. Why is that so difficult? Why would that have to depend on the U.S. (and other rich nations) legalizing drugs?

  9. Eliana   November 3, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Hi, Tomimportant questions. They require more space and we should examine each one in detail in future posts.Maybe not in our lifetimes, but during our kids’ lifetime, policy could change in the US. I tend to agree with you that a group of countries could move without the US and without becoming world parias.What would mean deal head-on with criminality in large cities? Do what was done in Bogota during the last few years? It seems to be working.