Marijuana and monetary policy

You might not think the two have much in common –  and the silliest, most damaging, monetary policy decisions (think of the MCI) were all our own reasoned doing.  But one of New Zealand’s most stimulating left-wing writers, Daryl McLauchlan thinks that monetary policy offers a model for how decisions about marijuana should be made.

When I saw his article the other day, under the heading “Why a public vote is the wrong way to determine drug policy”,  I assumed it was going to be something about the (de)merits of referenda, reminding readers that we are primarily a representative parliamentary democracy, not one where most decisions are made by plebiscite.  There are some merits to that particular argument –  and some counter-arguments.  But that turned out not be McLauchlan’s argument at all.

Instead, it was a bid to get not just the public out of any decisionmaking around drugs, but MPs as well.   McLauchlan doesn’t want elected people, or those who elect them, making the decisions, but “experts”.

Advanced liberal societies often solve problems of this class, not by politicising them further but by removing them from the political system and building independent, technocratic institutions. Elected MPs used to make decisions about what the official cash rate should be and which pharmaceutical drugs should be funded in the public health system, and they were so obviously terrible at this they devolved that power to the Reserve Bank and Pharmac.   I think we need to do that with drugs.

I’m rather sceptical of the cult of the expert, at least as any sort of decisionmaker.  There are plenty of decisions –  personal and societal –  where we benefit from expert technical advice, whether it is on treatment options for sickness or injury, house renovations, or how best to conduct a war.  But advice and decisions are two quite different things: we don’t, for example, want our generals deciding which wars to fight.   I wrote a post on these general issues –  arguing that experts should be harnessed for their advice, not allowed to set policy courses –  a couple of years ago.

I don’t know a great deal about Pharmac and pharmaceutical drugs –  although I do note that the ultimate decision (how much taxpayers’ money to spend on such drugs) is very much one for MPs and ministers (those we elect, and those we can toss out again).  But I do know quite a bit about monetary policy and decisionmaking frameworks for it.  And we have the added bonus of a recent book, by a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, reflecting on appropriate decisionmaking structures in a democratic society, working outwards from his experiences with monetary policy and banking regulation to offer a more generic framework for assessing whether or not decisions should be handed over to independent agencies.  I wrote various posts about it last year, and reviewed the book for the international central banking publication Central Banking.

Tucker sets a list of “delegation criteria” as follows:

A public policy regime should be entrusted to an independent agency insulated from day-to-day politics of both elected branches of government only after wide public debate and only if

  1. The goal can be specified.
  2. Society’s preferences are reasonably stable and concern a major social cost.
  3. There is a problem of credibly committing to a settled policy regime.
  4. The policy instruments are confidently expected to work and there exists a relevant community of expertise outside the independent agency.
  5. The independent agency will not have to make big choices on distributional trade-offs or society’s values or that materially shift the distribution of political power.
  6. The legislature has the capacity, through its committee system, properly to overseee each independent agency’s stewardship and, separately, whether the regime is working adequately.
  7. The society is capable of bestowing the esteem or prestige that can help bind the independent agency’s policy makers to the mast of the regime’s goal.

One can mount a reasonable argument that routine monetary policy decisions meet this standard.  After all, the overarching goal of monetary policy is set by Parliament, and the specific goals (under the legislation passed late last year) are directly set by the Minister of Finance.  And that legislation is backed up by a fairly widely-accepted literature that there are no long-term adverse trade-offs between inflation and output.   The Reserve Bank still has some important discretionary choices –  those short-term trade-offs can matter – but they aren’t choices about what sort of society we want to be, or who –  which sectors/classes –  will benefit at the expense of others.

Even then, the case for an operationally independent Reserve Bank conducting monetary policy is less strong than it once seemed –  those short-term tradeoffs are more important than the designers of the 1989 Act (which bestowed operational independence) really appreciated, and whereas the long-running argument was that inflation couldn’t be kept low enough without independence, we’ve now had a decade when central bankers haven’t delivered inflation as high as society (represented by its elected politicians) asked them to.  Throw in serious doubts about the effectiveness of parliamentary monitoring and scrutiny, and it is hardly an open and shut case any longer.

I’m not arguing to remove operational independence from the Reserve Bank –  although our system in particular still leaves far too much power in the hands of a single unelected official, who isn’t even appointed by people who were elected.  But if day-to-day monetary policy decisions possibly pass the Tucker test, I can’t see how decisions about the legal status of marijuana (or other drugs) could possibly do so.

After all, to set up such a regime –  in which some independent board (presumably appointed by ministers) would make decisions around which drugs should be legalised, for whom, and under what terms and conditions –  authorising legislation would need to be passed by Parliament.  And that legislation would –  under decent principles of legal drafting and institutional design –  need to outline criteria that the independent agency would have to use to make their decisions.   Of course, those principles could be waffly, non-specific, with no clear sense of which tradeoffs matter or which considerations should get the greatest weight.  Some might perhaps even be mutually inconsistent.

But that is no decent basis for delegating power in a democratic society.   And to get to a serious list of goals and constraints, one would have to go through much the same sort of contentious political process involved in either legislating directly or using a referendum to make decisions about legalising (or not) marijuana.   A goal might be able to be specified –  although I doubt it –  but there is no way that, at this point in society’s evolution, social preferences around these issues could reasonably be described as stable.  We can’t even agree on what the relevant criteria, or relevant sets of expertise, might be.  There are libertarians at one hand, people opposed to allowing any intoxicating substances at the other, and all manner of intermediate positions, shaped by all sorts of different considerations (be it about health, crime, freedom, responsibility, nature of society etc).   That is the stuff of politics.  Competing visions, competing philosophies, competing values, competing intepretations of evidence (or even of what evidence is even relevant).   It is what politics is about, and only political processes have the legitimacy to make such decisions (messy as they often will be).

And even if legislation were able to be passed, handing these big decisions over to unelected unaccountable people sitting on a committee, what is gained?   There is no stable agreed body of expertise relevant to making these decisions –  some will emphasis criminal aspects, some health and mental health aspects, some political philosophy, and some…..  By contrast, given a specific inflation target there is a reasonably specific set of expertise relevant to monetary policy decisions. And boards and committees don’t just appear out of thin air: the members are appointed, by elected politicians.  And so, most likely, you policy set depending on the preferences of the politicians who happen to be doing the appointment at the time, and yet without any direct accountability.  Or appointees purusing their own interests, ideologies or preferences – again with no direct accountability.

And, as I’ve mentioned previously around monetary policy, the willingness and/or ability of our parliamentary select committees to provide serious scrutiny and accountability for indepedent agencies is… put it politely… at best.   Limited time and limited resources matter, but so do does careerism –  making life awkward in a select committee might be just what the public interest demands, but it isn’t a reliable path to the next promotion into the ministry.

I’m not wedded to referenda in preference to Parliament itself making final decisions (although in general I quite like the model in which referenda are used to give a final yes or no to specific legislation, so that we know exactly what we are –  and aren’t – voting on) but I can’t see how appropriate policy around drugs is, by almost any test, something that should be decided by people we haven’t elected –  whether judges (the unelected committees that have too much policy say in the US in particular) or statutory boards and committees.  Why preference the preferences and biases of those people over our own, especially as we have ample opportunity to hear –  and follow or discount –  their advice anyway?

I ended my previous post, responding to Sebastian Mallaby’s call for more powers to be handed to “experts”, this way

Like most cults, the “cult of the expert” is more dangerous than Mallaby – or most of the expert class – acknowledges.[ partly because “experts” have a track record of badly misjudging all sort of key issues] And hotly contested political debate, messy as it often, wrong directions that it sometimes takes, are how we make the hard choices, the trade-offs, amid the inevitable uncertainty. Abandoning that model is akin to gutting our democracy of much of its substance. So I still want an expert operating on my child, but I want parliaments making laws and setting taxes (not officials) and parliaments taking us to war (not generals).

And I want MPs –  who we can toss out –  or the voters making to key decisions around whether or not to liberalise drugs.  As slowly as is necessarily to thrash through all the details and alternative perspectives relevant to such decisions.

22 thoughts on “Marijuana and monetary policy

  1. Reminds me of a joke.

    Brezhnev is standing on the Lenin tomb reviewing a parade. First the mobile nuclear missiles go past, then tanks, then artillery and goose-stepping soldiers.

    Then finally this bunch of middle age men in cardigans wander along…

    Someone asks the Great Leader why this bunch of misfits is in the parade and the Leader responds; they’re my economist’s. Never underestimate the destructive power of an economist !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Typical leftist response, the very idea of an informed and/or participatory electorate is anathema. The recent votes that rejected the inclusion of racist provisions in local body representation were decried as “a failure of democracy” (see Tamiti Coffey comments for example); rejected by 80% in some cases.They still call Don Brash “far right” but with that level of support for his positions you really do have to wonder about the choice of definition.
    Here’s some comment from Dr Peterson on decriminalisation of cannabis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The argument that we can elect and toss out members is, or at least was a good one. MMP and its list makes it weaker. I would have loved to have been able to throw Sue Bradford out of Parliament, but to do that I would have had to have convinced sufficient of the public to ensure the Greens received a vote equal to the list position one above where she sat. That is why I support an STV system – then we can actually do that.

    Until the system allows true electoral accountability for actions, officials might as well make decisions – list MPs are like inexpert experts


    • I would certainly prefer STV to MMP (I’m an FPP person myself), altho in any system the link between my own vote and the fate of a specific MP is weak, unless I happen to be resident in that person’s electorate. In effect, the discipline is mostly about kicking the relevant party out of office – a weaker argument on matters of conscience votes, altho I guess there is some party/issue alignment (eg Greens and marijuana).


      • Skeptical about experts and approving of democratic decision making – it is difficult to agree with your enthusiasm for FFP. Maybe half a century of UK FPP governments has soured me. In any election about 80% of seats are pre-determined – however good the candidate and however bad the encumbent a solid National seat remains National. Same applies to Labour seats. So under FFP a substantial minority in about 80% of electorates know their vote will not count so they tend to take little interest in politics. Politics is full of moral issues so everyone needs to be kept interested.


    • Any system that allows someone as deranged as Marama Davidson to rise to the level of leader of one of the parties in the broader government coalition deserves a good hard look at. Seething with hate, obsessive and dangerous; our Stalin in waiting.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Just read her page on the Green’s website. She seems to represent what her party and a substantial number of voters are interested in: “”writes about social justice, Māori politics, women’s rights””. I would prefer a Green MP to be obsessed by clean water, native flora and fauna, long term sustainability but in a democracy there will be groups with different priorities. If she does seethe with hate it is unlikely she will ever achieve the support of 51% of the electorate.


      • The 51% threshold is only significant under a FPP system, the horror scenario of MD & Co holding the balance of power under MMP is real. It only takes 5% (they’re working on having that reduced!) of the voters crazy enough to vote for the Greens. Clearly that is the case.
        This is someone that believes “that Western Civilisation it’s science and philosophy is basically crap”.
        We in the West have the most free, just, long lived and prosperous society in the entire history of humanity. MD wants to burn it to the ground so she can install her Utopia. After hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century in the name of Utopia doesn’t that fill you with foreboding?


  4. Whether marijuana is an addiction problem or a health problem, or a criminal problem, is irrelevant

    Apart from pharmacological medical induced addiction, drugs are a self-inflicted choice

    Some years ago there was a debate about the medical profession declining to provide surgery like lung and heart and liver transplants to long time alcoholics and heavy smokers

    With the recent examples of NZ deaths as a result of the consumption of synthetic cannabis the medical profession is confronted by medical events that are self inflicted. The simple solution is to triage all drug-takers to the back of the queue and for drug-takers to understand that they will be treated last. They may have to wait several days to be treated. They may have psychotic episodes while waiting. So be it.

    Once the word was out the problem would begin to go away at little cost to society.

    No need for the long lengthy wordy articles which are not necessary

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Apart from pharmacological medical induced addiction, drugs are a self-inflicted choice”

      And thus the question still is whether, and if so to what extent, the community should restrict the ability of its individual members – especially its younger ones – to do some stuff to themselves. In principle, I would say yes, but quite where one draws the line is more challenging.


    • Oh dear. One point, and OT from your post, Michael, but to iconoclast, don’t lump synthetic cannabis in with the plant: the first is an artificial poison – nothing to do with cannabis the plant at all – the second is healthier for an adult than alcohol is, and, indeed, has many medicinal properties via CBD.

      I suspect legalising the plant cannabis will drastically reduce use and deaths by the synthetic poison variety, as with harder drugs like meth.

      Finally, the answer is to dump public health so we really are responsible for the outcomes of our decisions in life, but while we have public health, if the bloke with the dope has to go to the back of hospital queue, then on your own reasoning, if you’ve had a few beers or a gin, you’ll be behind him because that gin will be destroying your internal organs; the bloke with the dope’s will be just fine.

      Bit sick of all these conservative knee jerk reactions in the drugs debate (as with the euthanasia debate where the (capital C) Conservative vote against has become bullying, against inalienable rights for individuals (because God, apparently), and frankly, too often infantile.

      Carry on …

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Arch-Libertarian speaks

        Comprehension – The article cited by Michael Reddell by High Tripper Danyl Mclauchlan is NOT about “medical cannabis” but ordinary cannabis. McLauchlin speaks fondly of tripping and zoning out

        quote “I had more fun with the drug in my 20s but it often made me fall asleep and it was hard to wake me up. There was an incident at a beach party – I obviously don’t remember the details – where I crashed out on the sand and my girlfriend at the time had a panic attack because she thought the tide was coming in”

        Thus, Hubbard, advocates it’s OK to get high, drive a car, crash into an oncoming vehicle, resulting in a fatality of the other driver, and walk away without responsibility. It is also noted that cannabis tends to be a serious inhibitor in passing drug-tests when turning up for a job

        The original post refers to alcoholics and heavy smokers which are considered to be obstacles in surgery and recovery. The practice of triaging such patients down the queue or postponing surgery until they repair is fact and conducted in the UK. It was from memory, conducted in NZ. Possibly still is

        It is noticed from your web-site you advocate money-laundering


      • There are a wide range of views on our drug laws and not much of a connection to general politics, in my experience, with many on the right taking the libertarian (as per the JP clip) line. Not sure if smoking weed could be considered an inalienable right but that wasn’t the point of the discussion.
        The suggestion is that we should be open to transferring our “inalienable rights” as citizens and voters in our democratic, participatory system of government to a body of experts; “the people are just too bloody ignorant to make the right decision”.
        We live in a world flooded with easily available knowledge but wisdom seems to be in short supply; these are complex questions of value not of knowledge.
        The elites are mortified when the people make a (values based) decision they don’t like; the wish for a return of national sovereignty issue as in the Brexit vote for example. That break in the matrix (wise call IMHO) would never have happened if we just had a body of experts, faceless bureaucrats running the show – a bureaucracy much like the EU, far removed from the typical voters influence; arrogant, authoritarian, inviolable. This is really a call for submission and control; the inherent totalitarian instinct of the left.


      • Intro to the new book “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts” by Salvatore Babones. Very relevant to our discussion here.

        The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK have caused fear and panic among liberals worldwide. They argue that the populist backlash represents a dangerous new authoritarianism. But what if the really dangerous authoritarianism is in fact their own?

        In this provocative and highly original book, Salvatore Babones argues that democracy has been undermined by a quiet but devastating power grab conducted by a class of liberal experts. They have advanced a global rights-based agenda which has tilted the balance away from the lively and vibrant unpredictability of democratic decision-making toward the creeping technocratic authority of liberal consensus. Populism represents, contends Babones, an imperfect but reinvigorating political flood that has the potential to sweep away decades of institutional detritus and rejuvenate democracy across the West.

        Babones’ bracing attack on the insidious “new authoritarianism” of the expert class and call for an end to liberal mission creep will stimulate and challenge all readers trying to make sense of the political tumult of the recent past.


  5. As society becomes more multicultural we will need a constitution and a society based on individual choice. Our former policies worked when we were a British originated extended family that looked after each other. The social capital built up was not built up for 3rd world migrants to leach off the state yet would not help others if they were in control.


    • The Treaty of Waitangi is a 2 party agreement between the British Crown on behalf of British Settlers and Maori as British subjects. 3rd world migrants are not a party to the agreement and therefore are excluded. The Treaty has never changed from its original 2 party agreement.


      • Last time I checked there were no tutorials for british anglo kiwis at university yet they have them for pacific islanders who are not part of the treaty.


      • Unfortunately, Kiwis that do not hold a British passport are also not a party to the Treaty of Waitangi. The original intent of the treaty was to provide protection for the arrival of new British settlers, the acquisition of land from Maori on behalf of new British settlers and to provide protection to Maori against kiwis who were mistreating Maori rather badly at the time.


  6. so me a pure british 7th generation kiwi is not privy to the treaty but a newcomer $10 pom like you is. You have no right to call yourself a kiwi.


    • kiwis were issued a type of British passport until 1973. So someone born in the UK to Polish parents and comes here and becomes a nz citizen has more rights than me. Your a troll and Gavin


      • What I am trying to point out is that the Treaty of Waitangi is a 2 party agreement between the British Crown on behalf of new British settlers and Maori as British subjects and was never changed.

        There was already lots of European and British settlements here that named New Zealand which happen to be a Dutch name. They had already owned land purchased from Maori. These were the original kiwis. They were never a signatory to the Treaty and they were settlers independent of the British crown. How did they disappear? That is how I came to the conclusion that a packing order existed in colonial times. Number 1 would have been the new British arrivals. Number 2 would be Maori and at the bottom of the heap, New Zealanders.


      • In the US, the existing European and British settlements independent of the British crown formed their own independent government and booted out the British crown.


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