February 22, 2006
I recently spent a few days in what a friend referred to as “the land of debauchery.” Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, is probably as famous for its openness toward prostitution and drug consumption than for wooden shoes, canals, or world-class museums. Yet, strangely, it nonetheless seems to be a clean, functioning society.
While Holland has an exceedingly redistributionist economic policy, it is a libertarian’s paradise on the social front. Recreational drug use is technically illegal but use of marijuana and hashish is tolerated and quite open in “coffee houses” throughout Amsterdam. The city’s red-light districts, where prostitutes sit in windows on open display, are famous the world over. Civil unions were introduced in 1998 and gay marriage and adoption rights followed in 2001.
It’s not just the more illicit vices, either. Amsterdam is one of the best cities in the world for beer lovers. The longtime (although now former) home to the Heineken-Amstel brewing empire, there are pubs on virtually every street corner selling dozens of Dutch and Belgian microbrews. Most of these are high in alcohol content compared to their American counterparts. And, as I can attest from extensive personal research, the pubs are all crowded even at mid-day during the tourist off-season.
The Netherlands is bucking the trend of the United States and the rest of Western Europe on tobacco, too. A third of the locals smoke cigarettes and it is permissible — indeed, seemingly mandatory — to do so virtually everywhere. Most bars and restaurants are filled with cigarette fumes. This is particularly true of those that cater more to locals than tourists, notably the so-called “brown cafes.”
So, how is this working out for them? Is it indeed “the land of debauchery?”
Not as far as I could tell.
Objectively, the life expectancy is in the median range for Western Europe, above that in Germany, the U.K., and the United States. Anecdotally, the vices struck me as much more contained than in other major cities I have been to.
I didn’t observe any illicit drug use or strung out junkies lying about the place. Despite the pubs being crowded and the beer flowing freely, there weren’t a lot of people staggering about the streets. Or, indeed, evidence of vagrants of any sort. My wife and I probably averaged ten miles a day walking and yet I was panhandled precisely once, at an ATM. This was certainly different than my experiences in D.C., Atlanta, New York, Paris, or Cairo.
Prostitutes were in abundance but confined to designated areas. I was surprised two or three times to see relatively unattractive women in lingerie sitting in basement windows in places where they were unexpected but I didn’t exactly have a map of the red light districts memorized. Still, they were more-or-less clothed and indoors, not outside hustling customers on street corners.
As indicated earlier, cigarette smoking was an exception. As anyone who goes to bars in the decreasing number of cities in the United States where smoking is permitted knows, this is a case where a minority is able to restrict the freedom of a majority, as even one or two smokers in a small room can make it noxious.
As a non-smoker used to being able to go into restaurants with the expectation of clean air, it was somewhat unpleasant. (Not unexpected, however, as the guidebooks had forewarned me.) Still, a number of establishments catered to the needs of non-smokers and did not permit tobacco use. Larger restaurants that did permit smoking were also accommodating when asked to be seated as far from smokers as possible.
The modern impulse to have government regulate everything is understandable. We live in close proximity to our fellow man and yet there is little sense of community as we move constantly and retreat to the comfort of our homes. Social pressure against bad behavior are relatively ineffective in such an environment.
Now, granted, I was there in the winter. Much of the activity could have moved underground or indoors. But I doubt it.
My guess is that the number of people who are likely to be hard core drug users, alcoholics, or regular customers of prostitutes is relatively inelastic. Decriminalizing such behavior may lead to more experimentation but, then again, it takes away the joy of “forbidden fruit.”
Yet, when we regulate behaviors we consider vices, we trade substantial freedom for very little gain. Despite huge resources devoted to drug enforcement, we still have a substantial number of users, with “12% report[ing] illicit drug use during the past year and 41.7% report[ing] some use of an illicit drug at least once during their lifetimes.” This despite the fact that, 28 percent of all Federal arrests and 11.6 percent of all state and local arrests were for drug offenses.
A policy of social tolerance combined with public education may well be a saner approach. I wouldn’t want to emulate Holland’s social welfare system or tax rates. But we may have something to learn from their attitude toward vice.