Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unintended Consequences

October 31st marked the 58th anniversary of Egyptian Law 215, which is one of the historic antiquities laws intended to protect the legacies of ancient Egypt from being plundered and sold to foreign nations. Unfortunately for Egypt and the world, the law that was meant to protect antiquities has had the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for legitimate archeologists to get permission to search for buried antiquities while leaving large amounts of treasure of incalculable value buried and vulnerable to careless thieves and irresponsible black market dealers. The law has done exactly the opposite of what was intended.

A case in point is the “Gospel of Judas” that only gradually came into the light of legitimacy within the past ten years after spending several decades in the underground of international antiquities dealing, during which time its physical condition deteriorated due to the carelessness of several of its owners. In addition, the origin of the find has never been precisely determined, which is a shame because information about where it was found would have been as valuable as the book itself. No one came forward to verify that they had found the gospel, though, because any account that would hold up in a court of scientific inquiry would also hold up in a criminal one. This same problem is at the heart of another controversy over the provenance of the Nag Hammadi Library, a cache of fourth century books found about 1945 in Egypt; although a man came forward to admit to finding the books, some scholars have serious doubts about the veracity of his account. In the case of the Judas gospel, there is an even less reliable account of its discovery that is also full of obfuscation and contradiction.

Laws often have unintended consequences. In the Egyptian case, the unintended consequence is not only the impediment but the perversion of the quest for knowledge. In other cases, unintended consequences have more vast and day-to-day implications. Most countries of the world have laws against trafficking, unauthorized use and abuse of certain drugs. An unintended consequence arises because any commodity that is illegal yet desired is going to be more expensive and its commerce therefore more profitable. There have been cases throughout recent history of the criminalizing or extreme rationing of alcohol and cigarettes; these led predictably to career criminals dealing in these commodities, and to people being murdered and law enforcement officials corrupted over beer and cigarettes. The cost to the dealer in terms of the risk of arrest and imprisonment is translated into a large amount of money and added to the price of the drug; this makes dealing drugs very lucrative for anyone willing to take the risk. That means that most of the people who will be attracted to and successful in drug trafficking are career criminals, willing to do anything deemed necessary to ply their trade. Everything that follows from this—homicidal territoriality, corruption of officials, and even aggressive expansion of drug trafficking and drug abuse—paradoxically flows from making these drugs illegal in the first place. In this way, laws against drug trafficking contain the seed of their own failure; they fail to solve the problem of drug trafficking because they actually do a great deal to promote drug trafficking and nothing to take the profit out and thus discourage it.

If the United States Congress ever decided to pass a law entitled The Drug Traffickers Full Employment Act, the great legislative body would undoubtedly produce a Rube Goldberg masterpiece of legislative folderol with provisions for proper hiring and job security practices by drug kingpins. They would never be wise enough to understand that they already have passed laws guaranteeing full employment for drug dealers: the very laws that have made drug possession, use and trafficking illegal.

An objection might be raised that I have not really offered a solution to the problems intended to be addressed by these well-intentioned laws, despite their unintended consequences. That is perfectly true, but it is necessary to articulate and confront any problem before it can be solved. If we agree that antiquities theft and drug abuse are problems, we will not solve them until we acknowledge that our most favored approaches, so far, have been part of the problems and not the solutions.