Are drugs the Achilles heel of stagnant inequality?

[off the cuff research idea memo]

There is an uncanny analogy between China in the 19th century and the US this very moment: in both cases a large part of the general population could not be persuaded away from drugs by morality or prison. Opium in China then, opioids in the US now. Could it be the case that the essential mechanism is that those at the bottom of very unequal societies cannot say no to drugs and that with a stagnant society, the elites cannot say no to drugs money because growth has then come to be zero-sum? So the combination of inequality and stagnation spells great trouble with drugs? Let’s go over the core bit of this idea and how to check for it in other historical episodes.

In China, the opium offered on a large scale by foreign invaders was too seductive to the general population to ignore. China was under great strain with high inequality, no longer able to ward off foreign powers (the UK and France) or maintain efficient government. The US now too is under strain from foreign competition (from China but also the EU), has high inequality, and is subject to a quite stunning opioid crisis, one essentially engendered by corrupt insiders to the US establishment, exactly as in China the establishment was corruptible when the Opium trade came round.

Now, the US is stagnant in a very particular way: whilst its GDP is growing, the majority has seen little improvement in their lives and nearly all the growth occurs at the very top of the income and wealth distribution, so all those lowly government bureaucrats have seen their relative income and status drop the last few decades, just as was true in China when the UK pushed its opium on the people. The US is stagnation in the echelon of the elites that it needs to keep law and order functioning: in its basic bureaucratic machinery.

The EU countries are not suffering from the same opioid epidemic, where the upsurge in problems is far less than in the US. At the same time, the EU is not stagnating in its middle ground: employment levels are high, inequality is much lower than in the US, and its basic government machinery has not become corrupted to the same degree as the US’ machinery has. Perhaps most importantly, much of the EU feels it is doing well, with happiness levels up markedly in many countries (including Italy), and the Eastern countries growing in confidence and stature.

So the basic pattern fits the big power players. Let’s check some of the other drug-related knowledge history provides.

For one, we know that a conquered people are highly susceptible to a drugs epidemic, even if it has no history of government. A drugs epidemic happened to the conquered Aborigines in Australia (who never had anything resembling government); the native Americans all over the Americas, and also occurred in Russia when the economy collapsed in 1991 (a period aptly called Katastroika). So there is clearly something to be said that a discouraged population is very vulnerable to drugs, whether offered by insiders, such as Russian opium-running army officers or American pharmaceutical companies, or outsiders, like the UK in the case of China or alcohol salesmen in Australia.

We already know it is basically futile and extremely destructive to stop all mind-altering drugs, as the disastrous episode with banning alcohol in the US has so nicely demonstrated during a period that the US was doing well in terms of its economy and confidence. So we already know our societies need drugs-related mental release to a high level even in good times. Sensible governments have learned this everywhere and do what they can to maximize the benefits from taxing the drugs and minimizing the harm by pushing the idea that only losers lose control over their own drugs habits.

When a people is conquered and there is lack of optimism, it seems neither very small groups of people, like the hunter gatherers of the New Worlds, nor very large groups like the Asian societies in the 19th century could resist drugs. I think similar things are true for Africa, but there my knowledge is less solid.

Yet, we also know something about when drugs-oppression is relatively sustainable. It came in big time in the 1950s everywhere in the world, particularly in the Asian countries that introduced draconian punishment for things to do with drugs. This of course did not stop the drugs trade, but neither did societies collapse. On the contrary, they managed to thrive. Ditto in Australia, the US, and most of the rich world: whilst there was plenty of drugs taking, particularly at the very top and the very bottom, societies and economies still managed to flourish anyway. The do-gooder middle management of the state basically towed the line and kept things manageable, whilst those at the very top did whatever they managed to get away with, and whilst the very bottom couldn’t resist but was of course openly miserable and thus a form of living deterrent.

The European societies for a while moved towards a social-shaming model of drugs control, with decriminalized cannabis and also a largely social-norm based approach to hard drugs. That has worked reasonably well.

So social discouragement seems to work at least as well as draconian punishing in growing societies. In both cases of course is it then by construction the case that large parts of the population have a positive alternative to live for that keeps many smart about drugs.

If this basic story is true, it would have several implications: enforcement fails when regular economic growth runs out and zero-sum economic games emerge; the US is in serious trouble over drugs, which will last as long as the growth does not trickle down; Australia will probably experience a rapid and serious drugs epidemic as well (maybe it already is?); the EU and most of Asia is relatively safe from the current epidemic, with the key long-term indicator whether inequality is still going up.

In terms of policy consequences, they all seem politically unpalatable.

Research wise, this stuff seems easy to look at with the amount of data we have on rates of drugs use in many countries over time. There are probably already many papers on this theme.

 

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13 Responses to Are drugs the Achilles heel of stagnant inequality?

  1. Hi Paul
    It is a theme that some Historians may have covered .
    Opium use ( in the form of Laudanum) in the UK in the 19C was enormous for example one dispensary in from memory Manchester in around 1850 sold more opium in one year than was used in the whole UK in around 1990. One historians thesis was that Tea , Sugar and Opium were essential to the industrial revolution ; those working long hours of repetitious tedious work ,in dangerous conditions in noisy cramped factories , needed something ‘cheep’ to keep them going.

    As to whether its been the subject of much research by social scientists etc I dont know. Do any of Troppos readers know more?

  2. Chris Borthwick says:

    Toed the line.

  3. Chris Borthwick says:

    You emphasize economic indicators such as inequality. Perhaps, but the evidence would fit macropolitics as well. When a hegemonic power – China, Russia, now USA – finds that it’s reached limits then there’s a psychic collapse that shows itself in deaths from opium (china), vodka (Russia), or opiates (USA). The USA hasn’t yet fallen as far, and the deaths haven’t jumped as much as they did in the old USSR (where life expectancy dropped ten years in five years). Actually being conquered, as with native people in various continents, is even worse, though that’s a bit had to discern under the complications of disease and dispossession.

    • Yet in the UK during the years leading up to and the first years of the British Empire very heavy drinking was common at all levels- The Duke of Wellingon was regarded as ‘moderate’: he never Drank more than two Bottles of wine a day. And opium dissolved in alcohol, was everywhere. And the story in Paris was similar throughout much of the 19C

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Chris,

      yep, that is what I mean with “stagnation”: the psychic collapse of the elites in particular which makes them very corruptible, as we saw in Russia in the 90s and right now in the US. Agreed also that the collapse in the USSR was far more spectacular than what is now going on in the US. Part of my PhD thesis was on that collapse :-)

  4. Chris Borthwick says:

    Actually, I have to say that Britain is the counterexample to the USSR and the USA; while it was losing its empire and falling in the world its life expectancy was going up markedly. Let’s see what Brexit does, though.

    • paul frijters says:

      it was losing its empire but became richer rapidly, expanding the welfare state and such. So there was still a major sense of progress. And the elites of course had just been through WWII. That gave a lot of cohesion. And inequality was less bad. Etc.

  5. Paul regarding Opium and China, part of the story is;
    Around the 1830s the UK had very little by the way of manufactured consumer goods that were superior or equal to the quality of Chinese products.
    The Chinese were simply not that interested.
    So UK merchants turned to selling opium to the Chinese ‘mafia’ as a way of getting enough money to pay for all the Chinese silk ,ceramics and Tea, that was in high demand back home. So the supply of opium to the chinese ‘mafia’ increased a lot. Chinese authorities did not take kindly to this and eventualy siezed and destroyed whole warehouses of opium. The UK responded to this by sending a relatively fast steam powered gun boat armed with relatively quick firing , long range guns. This gunboat alone utterly outclassed the entire Chinese fleet ( its where the term “gunboat diplomacy” comes from).
    In general the reason why the Chinese government could do nothing much about the masive increase in imports of opium boiled down to, the drug dealers were ruthless and far better armed-equipped than the Chinese government was.
    BTW
    There were also people who simply sold opium to China and then sailed to Kerala and used the cash to load up with spices, pepper, ginger, cloves and then went home and sold that for a big profit.

  6. Paul one other thing is , the US opioid crisis was not at least initially about illegal drugs.
    From what I’ve read ( could be wrong)it originated in misleading info to MDs about that group of prescription drugs and perhaps a too casual attitude in the US to the prescription of those drugs.

    It seems to have centred on people who in their working lives did physical work ,who were in their fifties to sixties, that as a result of those two factors were living with chronic and basically incurable back pain etc.
    I myself have three ruptured lower back disks -at times it can be tough to live with it.

    Can understand how some may have ended up addicted to drug treatments, particularly if those drugs had been promoted as having a low risk of addiction, which I think was the case.
    Can’t really see that much in common with 19c China.

  7. Anthony says:

    Interestingly, the opioid crisis in the USA is most heavily concentrated in the Eastern states. So, if it is a macro-economic root cause, then presumably opioids will spread through the entire country. Instead, I would argue the spread of opioids was driven by the erroneous belief back in the 1990s that newer opioids were not addictive. It was easy to obtain a prescription for large (and unnecessary) amounts of the drug. These beliefs and prescribing practices were not properly discredited by the manufacturers, doctors, scientists etc. In contrast, when addicts would congregate at rehab, they would share information for how to most easily acquire opioids from their doctors. The spread of opioids is more akin to how a new chronic infection is distributed.

    Fast forward to 2020 and whatever happens domestically in the US, there are many overseas labs (especially in China) that can make opioids (or similar derivatives) that can be bought online and shipped via post very easily. Here I think is the historically ironic reversal that fits most with the OPs stated theory: there are numerous drug manufacturers in places like China willing to sell to the masses in the US.

    • paul frijters says:

      sure, there are accidental factors involved in just where something rears its head. However, what you say about Americans being able to get drugs from labs in China is true for Asia and Europe too and you dont see an epidemic there. The fact that experts and authorities are mistrusted in the US enough to ignore what they say when they mean it (for a change) is precisely part of the problem talked about above. It’s more than just feeling an economic pinch. There is a general breakdown of society happening there.

  8. Paul
    I would put the US opioid and related prescription drugs crisis as down to Regulatory capture by Big Pharma ; It’s a powerful wealthy industry and it controls and often funds most pre-release studies of the drugs it develops.
    And it’s been like that for years.
    While I suppose that the US situation could be sheeted home to inequality, really can’t see much in the way of parallels with the story of 19c China.
    BTW
    Suspect that in countries that have some kind of public funded National Health system , restraints on overprescribing of ( expensive) and addictive drugs by MDs may be stronger than they are in the US.

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