The two-soprano rule

I’ve been going around the country trying to convince people that knowing the unsatisfactory results of cannabis prohibition doesn’t prove that any specific implementation of legal cannabis will turn out to be an improvement.

This brings me back to a principle I learned from one of my Kennedy School teachers, Francis Bator, who was honored at a dinner there last night. It’s a policy analyst’s haiku, combining the basic principle of “Compared to what?” with a reminder of the dangers of epistemic hubris.

In judging a two-person singing contest,
never award the prize to the second soprano
having heard only the first.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

42 thoughts on “The two-soprano rule”

  1. Cannabis prohibition is a relatively recent phenomenon. If it has brought about any significant improvement over the status quo of preceding millennia, then it shouldn’t be too hard to produce some supporting evidence. In the absence of such evidence, it’s entirely logical to assume that the outcomes resulting from legalization will be either no worse or better than those which have resulted from prohibition.

  2. What he said: Prohibition is the SECOND soprano. How short a time horizon do you have to have, to not realize that?

    1. It’s been a long, long time since MJ was widely legal in the US. I think 70 years is a long enough time horizon to want fresh evidence. The 1000 years prior, things were somewhat different, or so I’ve heard.

      1. I don’t think this particular policy has performed well enough to have earned tenure. Nor do I think human nature has changed in 70 years.

        1. Nor am I willing to grant that ~80 years is a “long, long time”, whereas 1000 years is. It’s just that the 2nd number is a non-sequitur, given that its over 4x the age of our nation.

          I have to agree with Brett. Prohibition is the 2nd soprano. And the aria has been nothing so much as a caterwaul.

          I guess we need to add a third act to the program for the metaphor to be relevant.

  3. This is funny. We only have to look at alcohol prohibition to have an answer. And what we learned was:

    1. Drug prohibition raises the price of drugs.

    This of course is the very idea behind drug prohibition. The price of drugs rises not because the actual cost of production, distribution actually rises by much, but to compensate the increased risk taken by those selling drugs.

    2. Drug prohibition increases crime, including violence,

    As a consequence of the increased price of drugs, many consumers resort to theft in order to pay for them. The massive profits for those selling drugs makes violence common, and in many countries, the penalties for violence are not much worse that those for selling drugs. If you risk going to prison for 10 years, the risk of going to prison for 15 isn’t much worse. There is no legal recourse if you’re conned into buying the wrong thing.

    3. Drug prohibition leads to more potent drugs.

    Due to the risks involved in producing and distributing drugs, there is a tendency to create ever more potent drugs – to get more “bang for the buck” as it were. This is exactly what happened during the prohibition of alcohol is the US in the 1920s – the speakeasys were full of whiskey drinkers, not lager drinkers.

    4. Drug prohibition leads to more dangerous drugs.

    Since there is no legal recourse to take against those selling drugs, and because the production of drugs must take place hidden from view and in places not designed for the task, drugs become contaminated.

    5. Drug prohibition corrupts law enforcement,

    The enormous sums of money involved makes bribing police officers worthwhile for the dealers and very tempting for the police. This was a serious problem during prohibition in the 20s. This is a problem now with the War on Drugs and the asset seizure and money-laundering laws that make honest people victims and/or criminals for the acts of others.

    6. Drug prohibition displaces more useful economic activity.

    In some parts of the world, growing poppies is more profitable than growing wheat or other food crops. Legalising drugs would lead more farmers to produce food instead, both reducing the supply of drugs and increasing food production in some of the poorest parts of the world.

    7. Drug prohibition makes it easier for children to gain access to drugs.

    Since selling drugs is already illegal, there is no further risk to selling drugs to those under 18. This contrasts with alcohol and tobacco, where being caught selling these to children results in serious fines or loss of license and, therefore, one’s business.

    8. Drug prohibition doesn’t stop the supply of drugs.

    A fairly obvious point in some respects. Since there is demand for drugs, someone is going to try and meet that demand. Alcohol was easily available in Prohibtion-era America. Drugs aren’t hard to find nowadays either.

    1. But this goes back to the original point. Prohibition and the War On Drugs Because Drugs Are Bad have many costs, which undoubtedly outweigh the benefits. (There was a modest decline in deaths by cirrhosis during Prohibition, but that benefit wasn’t enough to justify all the problems that went along with Prohibition.) There are some, probably many, decriminalization regimes that have a better cost/benefit ratio. But it doesn’t therefore follow that ANY legalization would be better. Some may simply trade one set of problems for another; it’s possible that some may leave us, on balance, worse off. And even if ANY legalization would be an improvement, some would surely be better than others. Alcohol regulations have varied by state and by time period since Prohibition was repealed; we’re still trying to get that right. There’s no reason to expect marijuana legalization won’t have just as many issues. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, just that we can’t say “Legalize it!” and think it ends there.

      1. We don’t have to compare relegalization to some hypothetical regime designed to be just relaxed enough to call ‘legalization’, but harsh enough to retain all the downsides of prohibition. (Like maybe ‘legalizing’ but prohibiting a market, as some have suggested.)

        All we need to do is re-implement what preceded prohibition: Flat out legality. We KNOW that’s better.

        1. It can be as legal as chewing gum; even chewing gum is subject to regulation. For example:

          We know that ending prohibition will predictably lead to more widespread use, and there will be some downsides associated with that. What measures, if any, should be taken to mitigate them?
          Will claims of purity, potency, or variety be regulated in any way beyond current product-fraud laws?
          Should there be specific taxes related to it? (The state will always want its cut.) If so, what is the optimum level of taxation?
          What measures, if any, should be taken to discourage or prevent use by minors?

          You can argue “None,” “No,” “No,” and “None,” but it’s not demonstrated that’s the optimal solution. Once the decision “flat out legality” is made, there are still tradeoffs and options. There may be a wide variety of options, any of which would still be better than what we have now. And we probably won’t get it right immediately. But we should at least try to think it through.

          1. “You can argue “None,” “No,” “No,” and “None,” but it’s not demonstrated that’s the optimal solution.”

            I don’t want optimal, I’d settle for better than what we have now, and “No”, “No”, and “None” is demonstrably better than what we have now. When what you’re doing is worse than doing nothing was, revert to doing nothing, while you contemplate what else you might do.

          2. I’m sorry but this is “scientism,” sophomoric, lazy, pretentious, and foolish. This argument is redolent with the rank stench of bovine excrement. BrianH, you should hold yourself to higher standards.

            We know that ending prohibition will predictably lead to more widespread use, and there will be some downsides associated with that. What measures, if any, should be taken to mitigate them?

            The measures may be extensive, few-but-vigorous, minimal or even none. Nevertheless, this question is a category error. The question is: Who should implement these measures-the government/coercive/violent part of society that is beloved on this weblog or civil society/private sector? The answer is individuals, friends, family members, churches, neighborhood task forces, charities, self-help organizations, community-organized efforts, support groups. In other words,the rich tapestry of civil society. Government should, to the maximum extent possible, retreat from this government-manufactured disaster. It really takes a phalanx of coercively-empowered do-gooders to create such a flaming mountain of feces as current policy has given to us. On behalf of the human race: Thanks, guys.

            Will claims of purity, potency, or variety be regulated in any way beyond current product-fraud laws?

            Uh, disclose your ingredients and Caveat Emptor? Mislead your customers about what’s in your product and be subject to civil suit?

            Should there be specific taxes related to it?

            No. Let the imprudent over-consume and ruin their lives. Let them, their friends, families, and communities help them to get back on track. Let society learn from the many “experiments in living” that it is unwise to be immoderate.

            What measures, if any, should be taken to discourage or prevent use by minors?

            Criminal penalties for distribution to true minors (>16y.o.). This is a good place for criminal law since minors are incapable of informed consent.

            We need simple rules that are easily understood and internalized as norms by the average reasonable citizen.

            Over-complexity is great for keeping lawyers/CPAs and public policy technocrats informed. On the other-hand, needless complications are a sort of poison to the body politic. It’s time to start privileging the latter over the former.

            tl;dr - Listen to Brett Bellmore, FFS.

          3. wait, D.Silver, you put “government/coercive/violent part of society” together so blithely.

            That’s quite a boulder you are placing in your assumption chain.

      2. Yes, but speaking to point #4 above there was also a tremendous rise in deaths due to the ingestion of “wood alcohol”, a poison* with which many bootleggers either adulterated their wares or sold outright as safe for human consumption.

        *plenty of links out there for anyone interested in that particular Prohibition-driven horror story…

  4. I would say both sopranos are singing now: You have drugs that are illegal (cocaine, marijuana) and some that are legal (tobacco, alcohol). Some people are capable of seeing only the virtues of one soprano and the flaws of the other, but I think most people understand that life is complex and never perfectible, meaning that people like you and Bator will always be in demand.

  5. I have been a lurker for a while, watching you have this debate with commenters and other writers, and I have to say I think you are confusing two types of thinking on the issue. There’s the expert policy adviser perspective-yours-which wants people to consider all the nuances of smart policy, and then there’s the perspective of the generally politically involved citizen, which just knows that something is wrong with the current system and wants it to change. Your perspective is highly valuable and hopefully will be valued by the people who actually design the new system to replace marijuana prohibition, but I, as a generally politically involved citizen, don’t care about the details or need to care about the details. To you, details are everything. To me it is more important that the political climate is changing and an unjust, destructive system is in on the verge of change in many places. In other words: don’t worry about the two-soprano rule. Hopefully you can have a hand in training the second soprano.

  6. I think some of the comments above demonstrate that in addition to the Two Soprano Rule you cite above, there’s also the Two Soprano Fallacy, or the Two Soprano Addendum: it’s wrong to think there are only two sopranos. Thus, the above comments pointing out that the problems of complete deregulation would probably be dwarfed by those of complete prohibition,based on past experience - as if complete legalization and complete prohibition were the only options.

    1. In mathematics, this is generalized further as the so-called secretary problem (also known by many other names). Note that there are variants depending on whether you want to optimize your chances to get the best candidate or maximize how close your chosen candidate will be to the optimum candidate.

      1. Also there’s the idea that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Maybe we can all agree that federal prohibition of mj didn’t work, wasn’t worthwhile, and ought to end. Then we can have 50 experiments, to Mark’s heart’s content. Somewhere in there, some sort of balance will be achieved, probably similar to alcohol regs.

        Meanwhile, there is possibly a bit of a sea change in attitudes happening as to other drugs as well. Prohibition just doesn’t seem to work that well generally. When I hear talk that the feds want to be able to tell doctors what painkillers they can prescribe — well, more than they already can — my reaction is that it’s a bad idea. Why should people with back pain, or any pain - do I really care what it’s from?, have to suffer because of addicts? You might have been able to say, well, no one really *needs* alcohol. (And we abandoned prohibiting that.) But painkillers?

        It seems like a witchhunt is starting. Why are doctors expected to read minds? If someone comes in and lies to them to get drugs, shame on the liar. And if a doctor really goes astray and becomes a virtual dealer, then the *other doctors* should be the ones to discipline them. Not a bunch of bureaucrats. I am not one of those who say the government can’t do anything right — it does a lot of things right. Prescribing pain pills — deciding who truly suffers and deserves help — can’t *possibly* be one of them.

        1. Oh, and I don’t want to hear, oh it’s just extra paperwork. Guess what? That will make doctors less likely to help their patients. They have enough paperwork already.

          The burden should be on the other side to prove their case. Let’s see them try.

          1. “Prohibition just doesn’t seem to work that well generally.”

            The basic model of all law enforcement: Somebody comes to the police to report a crime, and the police investigate. Maybe it’s the victim, maybe a relative of the victim, but the investigation is initiated by somebody outside the police. Indeed, the 4th and 5th amendments presume this, that the police are intruding into your privacy because they already have some reason to suspect you of a crime. Not just for yucks.

            This model breaks down for prohibitions, because nobody directly involved in the prohibited activity has any interest in reporting it to the police. Normal police techniques are simply not applicable to prohibitions. This mismatch is responsible for all the problems we see: Increasing militarization, corruption, the ineffectuality.

            And it is utterly unavoidable. No law which requires the police to go out and discover that it has been violated, rather than finding out from somebody else, will ever be susceptable to the application of normal policing in a free society. That’s a job for a secret police, not Dick Tracy.

          2. Well, I think the family members of addicts often have a lot to complain about. And I see their point. There are a whole string of unsavory people who profit from illegal drugs. So these are not really “victimless” crimes, when you consider all the illegal sales to minors. I might sound harsh on addicts, but we should be honest and admit that preying on young people should still be a crime, no matter how legalize-y we get. I am totally fine with the police nailing anyone who does that, be it ciggies or alcohol or what-have-you.

            Freedom of choice only applies to mature people.

            And even then, I’m all for making treatment more accessible and affordable. Subsidized! (I bet we just parted ways. ; >) Whatever it takes to give people a chance.

            But the war on drugs doesn’t seem to be working as currently fought.

  7. Mark, since legal cannabis is now a reality in two states, could you perhaps create and post a list of metrics to be used in determining whether, on balance, this represents an improvement over the previous state of affairs?

    1. Yes I will. That’s one of our tasks for the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

  8. The baseline is “doing nothing”, which equates to silence. You only need to hear one soprano to decide if silence is preferable.
    I’m with the Thomists (?) and lawyers here, not the utilitarians. The consequences of inaction and of action can’t be weighed in the same moral scales. For one thing, inaction is undefined: there are an infinite number of things I’m not doing just now. Inaction is only blameworthy if there’s a plausible duty to act.

    1. Let a utilitarian lawyer chime in.

      The two-soprano rule is true only if you have a chance to hear both sopranos. But usually in the policy world, you have to choose between facts and a hypothesis: the status quo and the policy proposal. The second soprano is going to be mute unless you award her the prize.

      To some extent, the Washington and Colorado experiments allow the rest of us a chance to hear a few notes from the second soprano. But we’re not going to hear the whole aria: the whole thing takes place under the shadow of federal prohibition, and what works in one state might not work in another.

    2. What? You only need to hear one soprano to decide if silence is preferable? It’s entirely possible to prefer Judy Collins to silence and to prefer silence to Tony Soprano.

      1. Nice, but there’s no inconsistency. You decide on a particular, not a generic s/Soprano.

  9. A haiku is supposed to be 5-7-5 syllables, right?

    Judging the contest,
    don’t pick the second singer
    when just one has sung.

  10. “With your bleeding ears
    will you ever find enough sense
    to embrace silence?”

  11. In a two-bomb singeing event
    Never point at the first Muslim you see
    Before considering your own nation full of US government haters

  12. I should also mention that in this case, as so often happens, the second soprano can’t sing until you get the first one off the damn stage.

  13. My nearest and dearest claims that as a paralegal she learned, “Things can always be worse.”

  14. Not a haiku, but perhaps relevant to a tired debate, from Omar Khayyam:

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same door as in I went.

    1. You might give a nod to the poet who actually wrote those lines, Edward Fitzgerald.

  15. The policy of cannabis prohibition is unethical.

    Please explain how repealing unethical policy and replacing it with a more ethical policy may not be an improvement.

  16. Meanwhile, Washington is busy sabotaging their own interests and the will of the majority of their own citizens.

    “I’ve been going around the country trying to convince people that knowing the unsatisfactory results of marijuana prohibition doesn’t prove that any specific implementation of legal marijuana will turn out to be an improvement.” —Mark Kleiman, 2013

    “I’ve been going around the country trying to convince people that knowing the unsatisfactory results of alcohol prohibition doesn’t prove that any specific implementation of legal alcohol will turn out to be an improvement.” —Mark Kleiman’s grandfather, 1933

  17. “I’ve been going around the country trying to convince people that knowing the unsatisfactory results of cannabis prohibition doesn’t prove that any specific implementation of legal cannabis will turn out to be an improvement.”

    Perhaps you should try to do your job serving the people of Washington State, instead of standing on a soapbox casting doubt on legalization and simultaneously promoting yourself.

    Any form of cannabis legalization is an improvement over the evil, corrupt, wasteful, cruel, and stupid prohibition regime we currently suffer under. That you do not understand this is an indictment of the WA LCB, who chose you, not even a Washington resident, to advise them on this matter. Why would they choose someone whose approach is to cast doubt on the whole process unless they were just going through the motions?

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