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Drugs and George W. Bush

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Oh, I was like that when a lad!
A shocking young scamp of a rover,
I behaved like a regular cad;
But that sort of thing is all over.
I’m now a respectable chap
And shine with a virtue resplendent
And, therefore, I haven’t a scrap
Of sympathy with the defendant!

Those words were penned mor than a century ago by the great satirist W.S. Gilbert for his and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera “Trial by Jury.” They are sung by 12 Victorian gentlemen contemplating the roguish young man who is the defendant in a suit for breach of promise of marriage.

How remarkably they apply to George W. Bush, who seems inexorably headed toward the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Bush has all but admitted, reluctantly to be sure, that he used cocaine or other illegal drugs prior to 1974. But as governor of Texas he supports tough laws against people who use those drugs peacefully. In his state, thanks to Governor Bush, someone possessing less than a gram of cocaine can be sentenced to prison.

This is all we need to know to understand why it is fair to ask Mr. Bush, or anyone else running for president (or Congress or governor or state legislature) whether he has ever used drugs that are today illegal. It is irrelevant that Mr. Bush’s alleged consumption of drugs is merely rumored and that there are no witnesses. As a matter of principle, all candidates should be questioned closely on this matter.

To so ask is not to invade the candidate’s privacy or to practice the “politics of personal destruction.” It is to root out two-facedness. Nor does it follow that private citizens should be quizzed about possible drug use. That, indeed, would violate their privacy.

The reason for this distinction is that private citizens do not enforce our barbaric laws against drug users and sellers.

If Mr. Bush used drugs when he was in his 20s, he perforce believed at that time that he should be free to decide such things for himself, that it was his decision and no other’s. He also presumably believed that he should not be hunted down and jailed by the state for his decision. Whether he “should” have used drugs is not relevant. Nor does it matter that he now presumably believes he made a mistake back then. (His advice on how baby-boomers should deal with their children rings hollow: He used drugs and alcohol, yet may well become the next president of the United States. Where exactly is the argument that young people will ruin their lives by indulging?)

What is relevant is that he refuses to recognize in others the rights and liberty he claimed for himself more than 25 years ago.

It will do no good for him to argue that people can harm themselves with drugs. That is useful information for prospective drug users, but it has nothing to do with liberty. An adult has the natural right to take risks with his life. Twenty-year-olds are free to skydive and hang-glide and fly small planes, all of which are risky (and habit-forming) activities that kill more than a few people each year. Nevertheless, we properly leave that decision to individuals. Why are things different with cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and the other “controlled substances”?

With respect to the presidential race, the issue is hypocrisy. When a particular application of individual freedom-the choice to use drugs-mattered to Mr. Bush, he believed the right to decide was his and his alone. Now that it is no longer important to him, he enthusiastically favors persecuting others who believe as he once did. This is not unlike Bill Clinton’s opposing the draft only when it would have sent him to war.

Come clean, Mr. Bush. Tell us not only whether you used illegal drugs as a young man, but why other young people shouldn’t have the same freedom you claimed those many years ago. And while you’re at it, Mr. Bush, tell us why we shouldn’t mock you just as W.S. Gilbert mocked his hypocritical jurymen.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.