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The Drug War’s Assault on Liberty

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ROBERT DOWNEY JR. is a perfect example of the war on drug’s tremendous assault on liberty. Downey is the famous Hollywood actor who has a drug problem. To punish him for being a drug addict, the state has arrested him, prosecuted him, incarcerated him, released him, and arrested him anew. The state won’t leave Downey alone.

Why?

The answer lies in the mindset that has pervaded Democratic and Republican government officials for almost 100 years. It is a mindset that believes that a person’s life is not his own. Every person is part of the collective — a part of “society” — and therefore is subject to the dictates of the collective. The mindset is akin to that of a hive: The bee exists not for his own sake but for the sake of contributing to the welfare and well-being of the hive.

This means then that every person’s health is subject to the control of the collective. After all, a sick bee is of diminished value to the hive. It’s in the interest of the hive that all the bees remain in good health so that they can continue contributing to the greater good of the hive.

The collectivist mindset can be summed up as follows:

“You were born here in the United States and that makes you subject to the rules and regulations set forth by this society. As a member of society, you are one of our assets and subject to the control of the ’board of directors.’ It is essential that you maintain yourself in good shape so that you can make a positive contribution to society. If you ingest harmful substances, you are damaging your health, and that gives us the right to step in and punish you until we straighten you out.”

Most of us would agree that if a person initiates violence against another human being, the state should have the power to step in to employ force against the wrongdoer in the form of arrest, prosecution, and possibly incarceration and fine. If a person commits murder, rape, or theft, for example, we would agree that he is subject to being punished by the state, whether or not he commits the act while under the influence of drugs. But it is the violence against another person, not the drugs, that is being punished.

That’s not why the state continues to hound Downey. It continues to go after him because he has the audacity to continue engaging in self-destructive behavior. He’s hurting the hive by diminishing its value.

Downey could be sitting in the privacy of his own home, snorting cocaine, and not murdering, raping, or stealing from anyone. The state will still arrest him and punish him until he finally stops doing bad things to himself. And the reason for the state’s actions lies with the collectivist mindset, a mindset that has governed political rulers throughout history.

Despite decades of warfare, every single proponent of the war on drugs — bar none — admits that that war has failed to attain its purported goal — a “drug-free” society. The best proof of this, of course, is that every proponent of the war wants it continued. If the war had been won, they would be calling for its end.

The war on drugs has engendered street crime, gang wars, convenience-store killings, robberies, thefts, and burglaries. It has assaulted the Constitution, civil liberties, and privacy. It has encouraged corruption, especially among the police. It has caused extensive damage in foreign countries, especially in Latin America.

It has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of regular people whose only “crime” is suffering from a drug problem. Many of them will languish in prison for a large portion of their lives because they committed the heinous crime of being unable to resolve the inner psychological difficulties that they chose to medicate with drugs.

The terrible failure and destructiveness of the war on drugs, however, is not the core of the problem. The central problem is the collectivist mindset that has pervaded our nation for so many decades — the mindset that says, “We have the right to control what you do to yourself.” It is this collectivist mindset that must be fiercely attacked by everyone who believes in liberty.

Every single person in public office or who is striving for political power must continually be challenged to justify his support of collectivism. Mr. Congressman: What gives you the right to put me in jail for doing something harmful to myself? Who are you to claim such power over me? What business is it of yours what I do in the privacy of my home? If I choose to ingest heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco, explain to me why that is any of your business. What gives you the authority to destroy with incarceration people who are simply having a difficult time coping with life?

Liberty, of course, has many different facets and aspects. For example, there is intellectual liberty, which enables a person to publish, read, write, and speak on whatever subject he desires. There is economic liberty, which enables a person to engage in an occupation, enter into mutually beneficial exchanges with others, accumulate the fruits of his earnings, and decide what to do with them. There are civil liberties, which provide a person with important procedural protections when the state accuses him of a crime; examples include the right to due process of law, the right to an attorney, the right to a jury trial, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. There is a right of privacy, which entitles a person who behaves peacefully to be left alone.

At the core of the idea of individual liberty, however, is the right to do whatever you want to yourself. If the state in any society has the power to punish a person for engaging in self-destructive behavior, that is a society in which freedom has been destroyed.

It matters not how much a person hates drug abuse in our society. Or how he detests seeing so many young people ingesting harmful substances, including alcohol and tobacco. Or how much he avoids ingesting harmful substances himself. If he values freedom, he must declare openly and forthrightly:

“I have the right to do whatever I want in the privacy of my home. I have the right to think and read whatever I want, and it’s no business of the state to control my choices. I also have the right to ingest whatever I want, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, beer, cigarettes, and sugar, and it’s no business of the state how I choose. It doesn’t matter whether I choose to read only the Bible and choose to ingest only fruits and vegetables. What matters is that it is none of the state’s business what I do within the privacy of my home. I want the war on drugs ended now because I value freedom, not collectivism.”

Thus, this is the real battle — the battle for liberty — that libertarians are waging against Democrats and Republicans. It is a moral battle. It is a battle that has been waged throughout the ages. It is a battle of the individual versus the collective. It is a battle for the restoration of freedom.

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    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.