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Michael Gerson’s Attack on Ron Paul

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Michael Gerson’s attack on Ron Paul in Tuesday’s Washington Post confirms, once again, that the real battle facing our nation is between statists and libertarians.

Gerson is your standard conservative. He worked at the Heritage Foundation and then as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Not surprisingly, Gerson is a proponent of the 40-year-old war on drugs. It’s not surprising because most conservatives favor the war on drugs. Conservative icon Bill Buckley was a rare exception with his support of ending the drug war.

In his column Gerson took Ron Paul, and implicitly libertarians in general, to task for calling for an end to the drug war and other crimes that do not involve the initiation of violence. Gerson specifically pointed to Paul’s call to end the drug war during the recent presidential debate in South Carolina.

In the debate, Paul compared the freedom to use drugs with the freedom of people to practice their religion. That reasoning confounds Gerson, who is a devout Christian. He simply cannot understand why a society that tolerates religious liberty and diversity should also tolerate the right of people to buy, sell, possess, and use heroin and other illicit drugs.

What Gerson doesn’t understand or appreciate is that a free society does not turn on the right of people to engage only in the activities that are commonly accepted. The true test of a free society is whether people are free to do what is not popularly accepted, especially when most everyone considers the activity to be irresponsible, immoral, dangerous, or self-destructive, so long as the conduct is peaceful.

Thus, in the religious realm people are free to worship Satan, even though most people would not approve of that. The principle is the same with respect to freedom of speech. People are free to embrace and promote Nazism or communism, even though the majority of people would not approve.

The use of heroin, cocaine, or any other drug falls into the same category. As Paul points out, a consistent defense of the principles of freedom entails an ardent defense of the right to buy, sell, possess, or consume drugs, even though most people might not approve of the activity.

Thus, the true test of a free society is not whether people are free to do what is popularly accepted but rather whether they are free to do what is not popularly accepted, especially conduct that is considered by others to be irresponsible, immoral, dangerous, or self-destructive, but with one important condition: the conduct must be peaceful. That is, no murder, rape, theft, fraud, etc.

And that’s precisely where Gerson goes wrong in his analysis. He converts what is known as the libertarian non-aggression principle from a prohibition against the initiation of coercion or force into an injunction against harm. Thus, Gerson argues, since drugs cause harm in terms of addiction, libertarianism fails to meet its own standard.

But libertarians have never held that the free society — and the free choices that such a society necessarily entails — does not produce harmful results. On the contrary, of course it does. That’s part of what it means to be living in a free society. If there are no harmful consequences arising from people’s non-violent choices, then you can be certain that people are not living in a free society.

Consider alcohol and tobacco, two drugs that Gerson oddly does not mention in his column. When people are free to consume these two drugs, all sorts of harm results: alcoholism, family abuse, drunk driving, cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer, and second-hand smoke.

Would libertarians advocate prohibition for booze and cigarettes simply because they cause harm to society? Absolutely not because, again, libertarians understand that with freedom comes peaceful choices, many of which produce harmful consequences, including such things as the worshiping of Satan, the embrace of Nazism or communism, or ingesting substances that cause bodily harm.

Gerson also took Paul to task for pointing out most people are not anxiously awaiting the drug war to be ended so that they can begin shooting heroin into their veins. Gerson construed that to mean that Paul was mocking people in those echelons of society where people are addicted to heroin and other drugs.

But that’s a ridiculous conclusion to be drawn from the point Paul was making. Paul was simply pointing out the obvious: people who don’t take drugs aren’t doing so because of drug laws.

The corollary point, of course, is that people who are taking drugs are doing so despite the drug laws.

And that’s the point that Gerson never addresses. Despite 40 years of drug warfare, drug use has still not been eradicated from society. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Drugs are plentiful for those who want them, notwithstanding the illegality that Gerson no doubt would like to see continued for another 40 years.

Gerson also fails to address (or take responsibility for) the horrific consequences of the war on drugs, including the 45,000 innocent people killed in Mexico during the past 5 years of fierce drug warfare, the robberies, muggings, and killings associated with the exorbitant black-market prices for drugs, the rise of the drug cartels, the gang wars, police and judicial corruption, infringements on civil liberties and privacy, and all the ruined lives of people serving long terms in the penitentiary for nothing.

“Judge us conservative drug warriors by our good intentions, not by the actual results of our policies,” Gerson would undoubtedly respond.

Like other conservatives, Gerson has undoubtedly used the old conservative mantra “free enterprise, private property, and limited government” countless times in his articles, columns, and speeches. Unfortunately, he failed to use his column attacking Ron Paul to reconcile that favorite conservative mantra with the drug war. For that matter, wouldn’t it have been nice if Gerson had explained how drug laws can be reconciled with God’s great gift of free will?

Statism, whether conservative-style or liberal-style, has proven to be a disastrous and deadly failure. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given that God has created a consistent universe, one in which a bad tree will produce rotten fruit. It is only by restoring libertarianism to our land that we can restore freedom, harmony, and prosperity to our land. A good place to start would be by ending the drug war.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.