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The Statist Drug War

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 01, 1999 by

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The Eighteenth Amendment, providing for complete Prohibition in the United States, was ratified in 1919 and repealed in 1933. That is fourteen years of attempted interdiction of alcoholic beverages, from which we learned nothing.

Prohibition was practiced by some states before and after the federal amendment, but it probably would never have been attempted on a nationwide basis except for an unusual conjunction of political circumstances. The Progressive Era’s bent for efficiency, tidiness, and regimentation made a powerful combination with the old puritan desire to suppress indulgence and enjoyment.

Even so, Prohibition would not have passed if large parts of the public had not completely forgotten about individual liberty and states rights, looked automatically to coercion by the federal government as the answer to all problems, and had not become accustomed to World War mobilization.

Diehard prohibitionists have never given up, but the majority came to realize, after a time, that the cost of Prohibition in cynicism, crime, and corruption was too high. If it had actually worked, it might have been a different question. But of course it did not work, as any sane observer could have foreseen. As a result, Prohibition is the only federal intrusion in this century that has actually been pushed back.

Our current "war on drugs"—the attempt to prohibit the importation and sale of recreational narcotics—has been going on longer than Prohibition and is an even greater failure and a greater source of economic and social destruction. But it is not likely to end. There is a huge bureaucracy invested in it, for one thing.

But more importantly, the "war on drugs" must be kept going because its premises are absolutely essential to the liberal-statist world-view. There is, of course, really no drug problem—there is an addict problem (much as there is no gun problem, but only a criminal problem; no automobile problem but only an irresponsible driver problem). But to admit that there is an addict problem, as opposed to some mysterious disease of drugs which "society" has caused and must cure, would be to admit the possibility of individual volition and responsibility.

In order to take a realistic attitude toward the addict problem, our ruling class would have to abandon the notion that people are entirely shaped by their environment. For them the problem is not that some people choose to take drugs and to commit crimes in order to afford them. The problem is that some people are victimized by a vague but menacing "drug problem." A problem which society must solve—by a great dose of liberal compassion and government expenditure, of course.

The unfortunate people who, because society has failed them, have been "victimized" by drugs, must be saved by society. For the liberal-statist, no human action and decision ever enters into the question, except of course for evil persons like "drug dealers." There is no personal responsibility, only social guilt—which is to them always profitable in power and perks.

Thus we have ever more hysterical proposals—the death penalty for drug dealers. Meanwhile, the federal courts have made it routinely difficult to inflict capital punishment on criminals who have murdered innocent victims. But we are to have capital punishment for the act of selling an illegal commodity to a willing buyer. What that means of course is that you and I, when murdered by a thug, are of no interest to our ruling class, while the unfortunate victims of the "drug problem" are objects of benevolence.

Andrew Lytle identified the basic liberal problem long ago as the heresy of devolved puritanism. The puritan insists on placing evil in the object—the gun, the deck of cards, the jug of whiskey—refusing to place the evil where it is really ineradicably located—in the human heart.

To do otherwise, the liberal-statist would have to recognize truths that have been known to all sensible people since the beginnings of the human race—the power of heredity and the power of Original Sin. They would have to drop environmental explanations and accept the fact that a certain number of people in all times and places will engage in destructive acts and that the human race is not perfectible.

Far better if we could end the federal drug war and turn the matter back to the states. They might prohibit drugs entirely, which they could do much more effectively than the federal government, the only competence of which is oppressing the innocent and expropriating the productive. Surely if we can prevent people from lighting up stogies in public places, we can prevent ingestion of more dangerous substances where they cause a public problem.

Or a state might make certain items available at specified times and conditions and quantities at legal market prices in state-owned or state-licensed stores, as is the case with alcohol. All states would certainly prohibit sale to the under-aged, though the exact limit might vary. The drug problem would be reduced to the dimensions of the alcohol problem, which is the most we can expect.

Several things would have to change, though. We would have to be willing to punish people, not for taking drugs, but for actual real crimes committed under the influence. However, by legalization, we would cut the ground from under a vast criminal enterprise that is the greatest source of violence and corruption in our society, from the street-level to the corridors of power. Possibly we might even develop a new class of legitimate entrepreneurs who could raise themselves and their neighborhoods out of crime and poverty. The Kennedys, after all, started their rise to wealth on the basis of liquor.

We would also have to learn once more to respect the Tenth Amendment and enforce it. Otherwise, whenever a local policeman made an arrest for a drug crime, he would be hauled up before a federal judge for violating the civil rights of some Rastafarian illegal immigrant.

The repeal of Prohibition right now seems unthinkable, just as it did to many in the 1920s. Reality takes a long time to penetrate the political discourse of a ruling class as shortsighted and hypocritical as ours, but it does, sometimes, finally penetrate.

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Clyde Wilson is professor of history at the University of South Carolina and editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun.