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Teaching Points– Jim Leitzel Comments on “Regulation of Vice”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Jim Leitzel is Neither Physician nor Lawyer

Editor’s Note: Today, anything-but-dismal economist Jim Leitzel talks about Regulating (and Teaching) Vice, the syllabus of which appeared yesterday. Read on to find out why he did what he did, why he quit doing it and what he did instead, and, by way of conclusion, the market forces that just might make him do it all again.

On opening day, I try to meet my moral (and legal) duty to the students by emphasizing that I am an economist, not a physician or a lawyer, and they should not mistake anything we discuss in class as constituting medical or legal advice! I also indicate that the Regulation of Vice class addresses public policy, not private policy, and that I will not ask anyone to share their personal vice experiences – though some students do, anyway. (Last year in the Teaching Points series, Sarah Carnahan discussed a course with a much different approach to classroom self-disclosure.) Another point I try to make concerns the (perhaps surprising) centrality of vice policy within public policy more generally; for instance, in the US, Supreme Court vice-case decisions help delineate the bounds for speech controls and police search and seizure practices.

Regulation of Vice, cross-listed between economics and public policy, follows Phil Cook’s mid-1990s course at Duke University in placing the focus on concepts, not vices: I try to avoid a “Tuesday is heroin, Thursday is pornography” syllabus. Two early classes examining Mill’s On Liberty set the stage for this approach. As one of the distinguishing features of most of the traditional vices is the possibility of addiction (or the loss of self-control), this topic takes center stage for a few weeks. Addictive behavior allows a comparison between a “classic” economic methodology (Becker and Murphy’s Rational Addiction model) and the willpower shortfalls and other systematic departures from rationality that are featured in behavioral economics.

Then the course investigates various types of vice prohibitions – national alcohol Prohibition in the US is the main “historical“ component – as well as regulatory regimes involving, for instance, taxation and buyer and seller licensing. These elements of the course draw heavily on the alcohol and drugs subsets of vice, so at the end, I abandon the conceptual framework and focus on a selection of other vices, which vary from year to year, but always include at least one non-substance-based vice such as gambling or  prostitution. My view is that drug and alcohol policy can be better understood (and devised) when placed in the context of vice policy more generally. For instance, experience with gambling self-exclusion suggests a potentially desirable approach for legal access to some of the “softer” of the currently illegal drugs. The fact that marijuana, cocaine, opium, and many other drugs are prohibited for recreational use on a global basis also constrains (but by no means eliminates, of course) the variance in active drug policies. Gambling and prostitution (along with alcohol), alternatively, display current working models across a broad range of the legal/criminal regulatory spectrum.

It’s a Dirty Job, But…

Regulation of Vice improved, I think, after I started active blogging (2003-2008) at Vice Squad. The blog writing, which covered mostly current vice policy events but also had a more scholarly side (see the Post Notables portion of the Vice Squad sidebar), rendered me somewhat more lucid. Prior to the blog, a typical exchange in class would involve a student bringing up a marijuana policy reform in Britain, for example, while being fuzzy on the details; then, I would respond with, “yes, I heard something about that,” and the exchange would end. After the blog, even if the event was something that I had not posted about (but especially if I had written on it), I tended to have much better command of the facts, and could initiate an informed conversation.

When I started teaching Regulation of Vice, I did not hold a fully formed view on “optimal” vice policies. Eventually I developed one, however (OK, maybe not fully formed); I believe that adults should have legal (though perhaps highly constrained) access to essentially all drugs for recreational use, for instance. (For some details, see my recent article or my TEDxUChicago talk.) I did not hide my views from the students, but of course I wanted them to be familiar with arguments for prohibition, too. One of the difficulties that I had in organizing the course was locating serious, detailed defenses of drug prohibition. They are thin on the ground.

Pugs not Drugs

The Prohibition Bottom Line

It makes me think that Mill was right, that when the received opinion is sufficiently entrenched and largely unchallenged, its defenders fall asleep at their posts. In the end, the authors I tended to use were John Kaplan, James Q. Wilson, and David Courtwright (in American Heritage, 1993). [Incidentally, I wrote my own defense of drug prohibition (it’s in Chapter 4 of my book, Regulating Vice), of which I am proud, in part because it is more comprehensive than anything I have seen. I once filled in at the last minute in a public debate over marijuana legalization, taking (against my convictions) the anti-legalization side; my earlier Ciceronian exercise in knowing my opponent’s case better than my own proved invaluable that day.] If I teach Regulation of Vice again, I will probably recommend or require Drugs and Drug Policy, by Mark A. R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (Oxford University Press, 2011); this book is not supportive of drug legalization, but is sophisticated and up-to-date, along with being easy to read.

Once my Regulating Vice book appeared, I thought it was time to move on in terms of course offerings. Essentially, more-or-less everything I had to say about vice policy was in the book, and I tend to get antsy and eager for novelty after a long-term project comes to completion. I first replaced the vice class with Regulating Speech –

The Regulatory State in Action

the parallels between vice and speech are pretty strong but the detailed applications were new to me. The main overlap between the Vice and Speech classes comes from the Millian beginning, and some attention to pornography. Replicating one element of my experience with drug prohibition, I found it hard to find good written arguments against US-style free speech, though Stanley Fish provided an exception. (Maybe opponents to the status quo, as well as its defenders, are asleep at their posts?) Now, I would probably also use Jeremy Waldron’s The Harm in Hate Speech. Last year, I filled the traditional vice/speech slot with a new course, Behavioral Economics and Policy. This, too, draws heavily on the early parts of Regulation of Vice, where less-than-rational approaches to addiction were covered.

As I mentioned in the previous “syllabus” post, I might revive Regulation of Vice – in part because my current long term project (on Law and Economics) is drawing to a close, in part because of increased public interest in drug legalization, and in part because I still care about vice policy. And as previous contributors to Points have found, there is substantial student demand for courses – even economics courses – concerning drugs and alcohol.



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