Sometimes, political ideas are so pervasive that they are unaffected by repeated examples of their failure. In politics, people can learn to rationalize anything, and thus even some of the worst ideas ever birthed by the system can wind up being embraced as valuable tools. Below are, as I see it, the five best examples of this in modern America. These are ideas so bad that they are not only pointless, but counter-productive; they do the exact opposite of what they set out to do. And yet, there are legions of fans for each one, and none of them appear to be going away any time soon.
#5. ZERO TOLERANCE
That'll teach you to bring Altoids to school, you menace!
Taking cues from the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement, zero tolerance is a blanket term that relates to any enforcement strategy in which any violation requires the same strict punishment, regardless of severity or extenuating circumstances. While zero tolerance has only been around a little over a decade, it has already proven its ineffectiveness when it comes to education, immigration, drug policy, and even foreign affairs. Aside from being unnecessarily cruel and borderline inhuman, zero tolerance does not achieve what it purports to.
Take DUI laws, for instance. Zero tolerance has been applied to DUI laws in most states in order to clamp down on leniency from law enforcement officers and the courts. While few would argue that there could be any circumstances in which driving while intoxicated could be acceptable, consider the fact that a violater is punished the same regardless of whether their blood alcohol is at 0.08% or at 0.25%. There are three main problems with this: (1) a man who has a beer right before his wife goes into labor and chooses to drive her to the hospital is as guilty of DUI as a person who stumbles away from an all-night kegger, barely conscious because he is so ridiculously drunk, and drives to a bar where he plans to drink even more; (2) an alcoholic will figure that, if he's going to drive while intoxicated, he might as well get really drunk since it will make no difference; and (3) law enforcement officers are actually more likely to show leniency--because they know how serious a DUI conviction is--which defeats the whole purpose of the zero tolerance policy.
But the ridiculousness of zero tolerance is more well-known when it comes to education. We've all heard the story of the migraine-suffering kid who gets expelled for having an aspirin in his backpack or the kid who gets sent home because he brings an action figure in for show-and-tell (it's holding a fake gun, after all). While many of these stories are apocryphal, there are hundreds of other, equally infuriating stories that are the geniune response to a zero tolerance policy with drugs and weapons in schools. The schools, teachers, and schoolboards have tied hands, because they are not allowed to differentiate between a kid who brings an AK-47 into the classroom and the one who idly fashions a slingshot out of a rubber band and two pencils. Zero tolerance removes the common sense ability to look at each individual case and decide how serious it is. Besides, study after study after study has shown that, after executing a zero tolerance policy, at-risk schools tend to get more violent, drug-addled, or filled with whatever else the policy is designed to eliminate. And while we're on the subject of schools...
#4. ABSTINENCE-ONLY EDUCATION
Condoms are obviously to blame
Over 2,300 years ago, Plato pondered, "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" Judging by the fact that many repeat similar sentiments today, it would seem that the morality of young people has been on a steady decline for over two millenia. It's no wonder we've become so concerned with how much premarital sex they are having, because clearly, in another hundred years or so, people will be giving birth to deviant chimpanzees.
Sarcasm aside, abstinence-only education is a genuine effort to keep children from having sex at a young age. This effort is rooted in a noble cause, because if we could cut down on the fornications of youth, we could cut down on sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, unwanted children, abortions, and much more. The idea is that, when you teach children about sex, you teach them that abstinence is the only fool-proof method to avoid all those ills, which is an absolutely true statement. Still, abstinence-only education wouldn't be on this list if it weren't completely counter-productive. The problem is that, while pushing for abstinence, teachers are forbidden to talk about birth control, presumably because if kids know about birth control, they will be more likely to have sex.
Proponents of abstinence-only education make several fallacious assumptions like that. For instance, they might assume that if you teach children about condoms, they will become so sex-crazed that the world will come to an end. I don't know about you, but when I think back on my sex education classes, the last thing they did was get me excited about sex. At the same time, though, all that insistence on abstinence as the only solution to the evils of sex did absolutely nothing to change my hormonal teenage desire to have as much sex as possible as quickly as I could. The fact is--and I draw this conclusion from far more than just my own experience--teenage hormones are more powerful than anything a teacher can say (as Plato pointed out, they won't listen anyway), and there is absolutely nothing adults can do short of castration that will stop teenagers from playing with each other's naughty parts.
Therefore, since it is impossible to cut down on the fornications of youth, it follows that we would need another method to cut down on sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, and all that. The easiest way would be to teach about safe sex, like when to go see a doctor over an itch, why you should ask your partner certain questions, how you buy and then put on a condom, how to ask your doctor for birth control pills and when you should start taking them, etc. However, this is the method expressly forbidden by abstinence-only education. So, in a round about sort of way, abstinence-only education is making all the problems it seeks to control worse, not better. Again, study after study after study bears this out.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a recent study that concluded the opposite, much touted by the mainstream media and proponents of abstinence-only programs, but its conclusions are extremely exaggerated and its methods are questionable. For example, the teaching method in the study did not avoid the topic of contraceptives or portray them in a bad light, nor did it conform to the standards of nearly all abstinence-only sexual education courses throughout the country. In effect, the study proves the effectiveness of comprehensive sexual education, which is not the same thing at all. And speaking of comprehensive...
#3. COMPREHENSIVE REFORM
It's a real page-turner, and damn that cliffhanger at the end!
With the president signing huge bills that measure in multiples of thousands of pages long, it is apparent that comprehensive reform is all the rage in Washington today. It didn't start with this president, of course, and it certainly won't end with him either. The fact remains that comprehensive reform bills will always be popular among politicians, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. First, let's consider the ideal of comprehensive reform and what it sets out to do.
Until we can come up with one that is perfect, any governmental system is bound to have flaws. Usually, those flaws become apparent the larger something gets, as in the case of tax law. For years, Congress may try to plug up one flaw at a time, even though, in the long run, every fix causes two more problems. Eventually, the system gets so complex, flawed, and drowned in red tape, people start demanding a new system (this even happens to whole governments). This is where comprehensive reform comes in. The idea is that the government can take some system (like, say, immigration law), tear down the existing structure, and rebuild the system from the ground up in a new and improved way. If this is what comprehensive reform actually did, I would be all for it, but of course, here it is on this list.
The problems arise because comprehensive reform attempts to do far too much at the same time. Special interests start competing, pork starts getting added all over the place, the public is no longer able to sift through the mess, and what winds up getting passed is some horrific Frankenstein monster than nobody fully understands. In the end, comprehensive reform leads to more--though different--problems, which creates a self-sustaining loop for politicians who can then propose a brand-new comprehensive reform package to fix the flaws in the last comprehensive reform package.
Advocates of such reform appeal to the holistic fallacy, the idea that the whole cannot exist without each and every part. If this were true (which it almost always isn't), it would be a bad law, because something with hundreds of different parts that all depend on each other is something that has far too many weak spots. Many of the most problematic systems in America today, like tax law, can only be solved by simpler systems, not more complex ones. Comprehensive tax reform could be done very quickly and easily by repealing a huge chunk of federal law and replacing it with simple, easy-to-understand language. It could be done with a bill of only one page, and those who are skeptical need only look at the United States Constitution, one of the shortest and most succinct governmental foundations this Earth has ever seen.
You see, the problem is complexity. The more complex a system is, the more flawed it will inevitably be. Addressing problems by adding a bunch of complexity all at once has never--and will never--make the system more efficient, fair, safe, or beloved. Unfortunately, politicians hate simplicity in their laws, which is why they are so in love with giant, sweeping bills that purport to comprehensively reform something. In a bill so large and complex that nobody knows what's really in it, a politician can throw in whatever he or she pleases, and chances are, no one will notice. And then, when things get bad again, that politician can run on creating even more reform, and so it goes, ad nauseam, and the problems never really get fixed.
#2. SUBSTANCE PROHIBITION
Thank God liquor is legal!
From 1920 to 1933, alcohol was illegal in the United States. During this time, organized crime flourished and discovered racketeering, alcohol became more dangerous, alcohol-related deaths started to rise, overall alcohol consumption was only minimally affected, and tax revenues were crushed by the $500 million pricetag of alcohol enforcement. Unfortunately, following the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, the lessons of prohibition were largely forgotten by our government, which immediately began a policy of drug prohibition.
Now there are governments--federal, state, and local--that talk seriously about bans on cigarettes, trans fats, excess salt, and even certain perfumes. Forget the assault this is on individual liberty and take a look at the results of prohibition of the past. The idea behind substance prohibition is that, if you can stop people from deliberately ingesting things that are bad for them, you will improve public health and lower crime rates. Unfortunately, prohibition causes the exact opposite results. I'm not suggesting a ban on fried foods will lead to seedy underground places where they sell black-market Long John Silver's, but no government has ever proven successful at legislating personal morality. Besides, when was the last time you looked at the pricetag for the war on drugs?
Advocates for prohibition make the fallacious assumption that, if something is legal, people will do it. However, if you compare the percentage of people who use a certain substance where it is illegal to those where it is decriminalized, the percentage is almost always higher in places where the substance is illegal. This seems to indicate that certain prohibitions, aside from being counter-productive in the results, are also counter-productive in their means. Making a substance illegal accomplishes nothing (or worse) when it comes to stopping the usage of that substance.
But the war on substances continues unabated. Our government spends billions of dollars every year, our prisons are getting overcrowded with people on drug offenses (usually thanks to the one-two punch of zero tolerance substance prohibition), crime flourishes on the revenues of drug sales, and emergency rooms get nightly visits from people who have used unsafe drugs they were forced to either brew at home or get from somebody in an alley. I'm not saying that decriminalization would eliminate the drug problem in this country, but it would certainly reverse our deficits, lower our crime rates, give the people more liberty, and improve our public health. Or is there some other reason for the Twenty-first Amendment?
#1. ECONOMIC SANCTIONS
Yeah, those sanctions are making North Korea a much better place
Following World War II, it was a prevailing opinion that, in order to prevent another World War, all the nations of the world should be economically tied to each other. Therefore, attacking one nation would hurt your own, and if you wished to punish a nation without killing anyone, you could impose an economic sanction (cut off trade, essentially). Economic sanctions were not a new tool at the time, but they have certainly exploded in popularity in the sixty-five years that have followed.
Now, America can impose an economic trade sanction against another nation for any number of reasons. If our government disapproves of another nation's human rights violations, for example, it could cut off all trade with that nation. The bottom line, though, is that economic sanctions are supposed to be a way to avoid war and punish rogue states. By that measuring stick, economic sanctions are, historically, almost always a failure.
Two extreme examples from recent history are Iraq and Iran. We imposed economic sanctions against Iraq almost two decades ago in order to avoid having to go to war, and we all know how that turned out. As for Iran, our economic sanctions have done nothing to slow down the government (in fact, some have argued that those sanctions shielded Iran from the current global financial crisis), but have done wonders in slowing down the progress of a middle class that could rise up against its oppressive leaders. There are two reasons for this: (1) international business owners are the hardest hit from economic sanctions; and (2) when a government takes a financial hit from a foreign source, it usually makes up for it by taking money from the people.
Granted, every once in a blue moon, when conditions are just right and the entire world is united in sanctioning a specific country, sanctions can do good. Just look at South Africa. However, this is the exception, not the rule, because the entire world almost never reaches a consensus like that and unilateral sanctions are pathetic at best. For the vast majority of cases, economic sanctions tend to starve the people they are trying to protect while failing to prevent an inevitable war. In those cases, economic sanctions--just like zero tolerance enforcement strategies, abstinence-only sex education, huge comprehensive reform bills, and substance prohibition--do far more harm than good.