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Freedom vs. the Drug War

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Drug Warby Jacob G. Hornberger

Oftentimes Latin American regimes blame the failure of the drug war on the U.S. government and the American people. They say that the fundamental problem is the demand for drugs among Americans as well as the failure of the U.S. government to reduce the demand.

While emphasizing the continued importance of interdicting the supply of drugs coming out of Latin America, U.S. drug-war proponents overwhelmingly agree with the point made by their Latin American counterparts — that if the demand for drugs among Americans was eradicated, that would naturally solve the problem of supply.

A close examination of that mindset reveals what a shocking and appalling violation of liberty it entails.

Let’s say that an American couple ingests both marijuana and cocaine on a regular basis. We don’t know the reason why they choose to do this but we do know that they prefer the high the drugs give them compared to facing life without the drugs. Who knows? It might be some sort of emotional pain that the couple is trying to dull. It might just be that they enjoy getting high, much as people who periodically drink alcohol do. Undoubtedly, the couple knows that the drugs might be harming them but they’re willing to take that chance, much as people who smoke cigarettes do the same thing.

The U.S. government wants to punish that couple. It wants to arrest them, fine them, and incarcerate them. It wants to remove them from the mainstream of society for having had the audacity to ingest substances that the government just doesn’t approve of. It wants to do bad things to them. It views them as criminals.

I find that absolutely appalling, as do libertarians in general. Why in the world should that couple be fined or put into jail? Do they belong to the government or to “society”? Are they owned by the government or “society”? What claim do the government and “society” have on their lives? What business is it of the government or “society” to punish that couple for ingesting whatever they choose to ingest?

Those are the questions that statists never ask. It just doesn’t occur to them that there could be anything wrong with the state’s punishing people for doing something that could be considered harmful to themselves.

For the statist, everyone belongs to the collective — to society. If someone isn’t living up to his full potential, he’s hurting the collective. He might not be as productive as he could be, which means less tax revenues being sent to the state, which means less money to sustain the welfare-state and warfare-state activities of the government.

Statists see life much as they view a bee hive, where the purpose of life is to contribute to the common good, as defined by the state, violations of which are enforced by fines, imprisonment, and possibly even execution.

Libertarians see things entirely differently. For us, what matters is the freedom of people to live their lives anyway they choose, so long as they don’t initiate force or fraud against others. For us, a person lives for his own sake, not for the greater good of the collective or “society.”

In the process of living his life, a person might well make choices that others believe are not in the best interests of society or are considered to be irresponsible, unwise, or unsafe. For us libertarians, that’s what freedom is all about. We say that everyone should to be free to pursue his own happiness in his own way even if it involves what others consider are bad choices.

That’s not to say, of course, that people shouldn’t be free to try to persuade people to make what they consider are good choices. Of course they should, just as the person being persuaded is free to say, “Butt out of my life.” It’s just to say that the state has no more legitimate moral authority to punish a person for putting something bad into his mouth than it does to punish a person for putting something bad into his mind by reading the wrong books.

Perhaps more than any other government program, the drug war reflects the fundamental differences in how libertarians and statists view the nature of life and freedom and the legitimate role of government in society. For us libertarians, what matters above all else is the right of people to live their lives however they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful and free of fraud. We consider such freedom to be a fundamental, God-given right that precedes government. For the statist, what matters above all is the authority of the state to establish and enforce regimentation and conformity within society with fines, incarceration, and possibly execution.

Even if the drug war succeeded in eliminating all demand for drugs and supply of drugs, libertarians would still oppose it because what matters to us is freedom. But as we all know, despite decades of drug warfare, the drug war has not only failed to reduce demand or supply, it has also spawned all sorts of horrific consequences, such as drug gangs, gang warfare, assassinations, corruption, robberies, muggings, thefts, murders, and burglaries. That’s because God has created a consistent universe — one in which evil means beget bad ends.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.


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