Blogs > Liberty and Power > Drugs, Liberty, and the Right

Apr 30, 2005 1:05 am

Drugs, Liberty, and the Right

Reading Keith Halderman’s insightful post, I can’t seem to get over the fact that so many conservatives these days still believe so much in the drug war, and consider it to be the main weakness of libertarianism.

First of all, the concept of having a free society—without regulations on business, taxation of incomes or sales, protectionist tariffs, gun control laws, government education, government healthcare, subsidies, or violations of basic rights of due process—yet somehow maintaining a “war on drugs” that somehow prevents people from using, manufacturing or distributing certain chemicals to people who want them, is absurd and unimaginable. How can anything close to a libertarian philosophy allow for a State empowered enough to control what people put into their own bodies? It can’t. Conservatives who say libertarianism is fine except the drug issue do not, I believe, truly comprehend the implications of a free society, of individual liberty, of a laissez faire economy. Aside from the ethical and pragmatic problems with drug prohibition, the program is so incompatible with liberty and the free market that they simply could not exist together. There is no such thing as a conservative version of libertarianism that excludes the right to determine what to put in one’s own body. This is why, at the end of the day, most conservatives who say they are libertarians except on the drug issue will reveal all sorts of other qualifications and reservations concerning other areas of civil society, once prodded or questioned enough.

Indeed, as Halderman points out, the Progressives deserve much of the blame for the drug laws. Before the Progressive Era, there were few drug laws and drug problems. There were alcoholics, and the most widely abused drug was probably Laudanum, a beverage of alcohol and opium consumed by middle-class Americans. But even those who drank more than they should have—just like most today who drink more alcohol than they probably should—were still able to function in society and posed no threat to their neighbors, much less"national security."

The first drug laws were on the state level, and pertained mainly to alcohol. In California, Opium became illegal in the late 19th century—mainly as a way to harass Chinese-Americans. It was during the Progressive Era that the federal government passed the first major national drug law, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which forbade heroin and required prescriptions for cocaine and morphine. The culmination of the Progressive Era in domestic policy—the biggest achievement of the Progressives—was probably alcohol prohibition, with the Volstead Act and 18th Amendment. When alcohol prohibition ended, federal bureaucrats like Harry Anslinger were peeved they didn’t have anything to do in the prohibition department, so it wasn’t long before Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1938—which outlawed the drug by making it a tax issue (to have the drug without a tax stamp was illegal, but the tax stamps weren’t printed)—and Franklin Roosevelt signed it. So the first federal marijuana laws were part of the New Deal. The next major federal interventions on the drug issues, such as the creation of drug scheduling and the ban of LSD and other drugs, came during the Great Society.

It is no coincidence that back when America had a much freer market, no Federal Reserve or persistent income tax, no Departments of Education or Health and Human Services, no national price controls, federal gun laws, and all the other things conservatives often claim they do not like, America also had no drug laws of significance. The freedom to control one’s own body was not seen as a federal issue, just as education and welfare weren’t. For the State to expropriate the means of consumption is socialistic, and burdened with all the same moral and practical problems as the worst socialist economic programs.

Furthermore, the Szasz quote Halderman cites relates to an important point about the use of scare language and its impact on discourse and social thinking on drugs. The word “narcotic” has an actual meaning. Narcotics are analgesics and depressants that bring about a state of narcosis—sleep. Marijuana is not a narcotic. Cocaine is not a narcotic. Just like the liberals who talk about “assault weapons,” usually with little understanding of firearms, distinctions between them and the subtleties of language, conservatives talk about “designer drugs” and “narcotics” without having a clue, most the time, what they’re yapping about.

Yes, drugs can be very harmful. So can automobiles, cigarettes and high-fat diets—all of which kill more Americans every year than all illegal drugs combined. Back in the early 20th century—before the Income Tax, the Federal Reserve, or the regulatory-welfare state—anyone could walk into a drug store and buy cocaine or heroin. “Heroin” itself was a brand name trademarked by the company that produced it, Bayer. If heroin were legal now, it would probably be used in hospitals in many cases instead of morphine, since it has the same analgesic effects but is more potent, and thus has fewer side effects. Indeed, if we had a true free market in drugs, do conservatives really worry that everyone would start doing heroin all the time? Do they worry about crack—a version of cocaine that became popularized because the drug war made it a less risky and expensive method to distribute higher potency cocaine? Do they worry about powder cocaine—which really took off when the feds were somewhat successful in preventing the proliferation of marijuana and banned coca leaves? In a free market in drugs, people will seek drugs as they do now, but such considerations as safety and fewer side effects will become increasingly important. People will be more selective. If they legalized all the drugs, perhaps marijuana use would go up for a short time, but, just like alcohol use after alcohol prohibition, it would probably go back down. The “harder” drugs would probably not become that much more popular, and I would bet that fewer people would huff paint.

And even if drug use went up somewhat, the drug war is still not worth it. The war on politically incorrect molecules and plants must end, and soon, for its costs are far too high and its benefits dubious.

To believe in the drug war is simply to believe that freedom and the free market are dysfunctional, that consumption is an appropriate thing to nationalize, that it is morally permissible to lock people in cages for personal choices. It’s very hard for me to understand how people can be wrong on this issue but right on most others. And, as I said before, most people who are wrong on the drug issue are wrong on many other issues.

Finally, how can conservatives still think the drug war is working, or that it is doing more good than bad? Hundreds of thousands of non-violent people behind bars at the cost of fifty-or-so-thousand dollars each per year, the systematic destruction of the Bill of Rights, the acceleration of violent crime, a perverse foreign policy of spraying Latin Americans’ crops with poison and propping up their “anti-drug” dictators —are these things still considered worth it, just so “we” don’t “send the wrong message” by re-legalizing drugs? And, I know it has been said over and over, but do these people want to outlaw alcohol again? I know some of them actually do.

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Anthony Gregory - 4/16/2005

The conservatives who make the argument that the State must enforce "morality" or else people won't be virtuous enough to be free, remind me of the liberals who think the State should enforce "fairness" in the market, hammering out the rough edges of capitalism, or else the market can't be free.

Lisa Casanova - 4/16/2005

I agree completely that it's difficult to comprehend how some people cannot see that the drug war is absolutely terrible and an utter failure. I think part of the problem is that for a lot of conservatives drugs have become a moral issue. I'm not clear if it comes from specific prohibitions some religions have against putting drugs in your body (like the Mormons, for example). But clearly for conservatives choices about drugs, like choices about sex, marriage, and other questions in the realm of morality, have become part of what makes you a "moral" person or not. There was a thread on (I can't find it now, but I'll keep trying) where people were discussing whether government can or should enforce morality. One person was arguing that a free society where people are not moral cannot sustain itself, but will collapse because of the negative consequences of people's immoral choices. Therefore, you must create morality to have freedom. I'm sure there's a huge philosophical debate to be had there, but I think a lot of conservatives would be sympathetic to this person's position. They want a free society, but can't imagine how such a society could keep itself going if everyone just does what they feel like doing (which is what they assume would happen if there were no laws enforcing moral behavior). I think the essential idea is that they want a society with a fair amount of freedom, but think that such a thing can only exist and sustain itself if everyone is behaving themselves. Therefore, to have a free society, we have to make people behave, which includes having laws that accomplish nothing but telling people, "there are consequences if you don't do right!" It's difficult to persuade people that society as a whole can survive the destructive choices that a few people will make if they're free to choose. It's a big task, and I'm not sure I know how, but maybe that's where we need to meet people if we want to change their minds. U think your post is a good start.

Brian Radzinsky - 4/16/2005

I'm just surprised that more conservatives and so-called "progressives" don't support drug liberalization. After all, they must be pretty thick not to realize that the reason our inner cities are in economic and social shambles is that the illegality of drugs has created an underground market that is highly violent and unstable. If progressives want to end the soft racism of the inner cities, and if conservatives really want to maintain order and build up the market then they'd support ending controlled substance legislation. But will they? Nope. Because they are more concerned about controlling people's lives than improving them overall.

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