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Freedom, Virtue, and Responsibility, Part 1

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When the surgeon general of the United States, Joycelyn Elders, announced that drug legalization was an idea worth studying, the reaction among politicians, bureaucrats, conservatives, and even those on the political left was immediate. “Immoral!” “You favor drug abuse?” “Have you ever held a crack baby?” “You should resign!”

Why do so many people still favor the idea of drug prohibition when, after eighty years, it is so obviously a failure?

One reason is that many people, including public officials, benefit from it. The war on drugs has spawned a huge network of bribes, payoffs, campaign contributions, and property seizures that benefit elected representatives, judges, and law-enforcement officials. Moreover, many public officials have simply become dependent on the war on drugs. For example, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration have mortgages and car payments like the rest of us; thus, if the war on drugs was ended, they would lose their jobs and have to find new employment in the private sector.

It is not difficult to understand, then, the tremendous adverse reaction among public officials to Dr. Elders’ suggestion. The mere thought that drug legalization should be studied strikes fear into those who have become dependent on the war or who benefit from it.

Therefore, the possibility of many more public officials being in the vanguard of supporting the idea of drug legalization is minimal. Our battle must be for the hearts and minds of the American people. Once they see the folly of this war — and others like it — they will bend the politicians and bureaucrats to their will.

The real issue, then, is: why do so many private citizens continue to support the war on drugs? More fundamentally, why do so many people believe that the state has a legitimate role in regulating and punishing what many view as wrongful conduct that does not involve the use of force or fraud upon another?

The answer that our fellow citizens give us goes something like this: “Illicit drugs are dangerous and threatening to our society, and especially to our children. We want to see them eliminated from society. We would much rather live in a community of virtuous, moral, responsible people than one of drug-crazed, violent, and irresponsible people. Therefore, we cannot support the idea of drug legalization.”

Is there a flaw in this reasoning? I think most of us would share the goal expressed by these sentiments — living in a society of virtuous, caring, responsible people. What, then, separates us — that is, those of us who oppose the war on drugs and other attempts to legislate morality — from the vast majority of our fellow citizens?

The answer is twofold: first, and most important, the idea of individual freedom, not the good society, is our highest value. But second, we know that freedom is the only way to achieve the good society.

We begin with the notion that we and our fellow citizens share the same end with respect to the type of society in which we wish to live and raise our children. So far, so good. But let us first examine the means chosen by our fellow citizens — coercion — to achieve this end. And let us use the war on drugs as an example.

Our fellow citizens believe that the way to achieve a “drug-free” society is by waging the war on drugs — a war that entails searches, seizures, arrests, invasions of privacy, trials, fines, and imprisonment. And they discount the fact that eighty years of warfare has failed to achieve their goal so far. They continue to believe that victory is just around the corner. One more record drug seizure — one more arrest of a giant drug lord — one more massive drug raid — one more big property seizure — will finally discourage drug suppliers and drug users from continuing their course of action.

I recently raised the idea of drug legalization on a radio talk show. One caller said, “The problem is that they haven’t really fought the war as hard as they could. I would build a wall all around the United States to ensure that no drugs enter the country; and I would kill all drug dealers on sight.”

I responded by mentioning two uncomfortable facts. First, Washington, D.C., is one of the biggest drug-infested cities in the world. If the national politicians and bureaucrats cannot keep drugs out of their own backyard, what makes people believe that they can do so all over the nation? Second, there are formidable walls built around prisons all over the U.S. Yet, drugs find their way into the prisoners’ cells. In fact, another caller reminded the first caller that there were even drugs in German concentration camps. I asked the first caller this question: if the only way to eliminate drugs from society is to round everyone up and place us all in concentration camps, would he say okay to this idea?

His answer was silence. Hopefully, the point was sinking into his consciousness — that in order to achieve a drug-free society through coercion, a massive police state must be instituted — walls built around not only the nation but around the cities, the neighborhoods, even around each home; cameras inside every room in every building; informants in every workplace and home; more and more prisons; hundreds of thousands of new police; hundreds of new financial privacy laws; thousands of new seizures of property, and millions of dollars in new taxes to pay for all of this.

And would drug abuse be ended? Did it end in German concentration camps? Did it end in American penitentiaries? Did it end in police states like Cuba and Russia?

The sad truth, of course, is that some of our fellow citizens would favor a massive police state — even concentration camps for all of us — in the hopes of finally achieving their goal of a drug-free society. But we must continue to believe that most of our fellow citizens, when they see that this is what lies at the end of the road they are traveling, will abandon their road to serfdom and join us on the road to freedom.

What about our way to achieve a virtuous, caring, moral, responsible society? We believe that the only way to achieve the good society — and I repeat, the only way — is through the widest ambit of freedom of choice. But before showing how this works, let us examine a more fundamental question: why do so many people in society today wish to take mind-altering drugs?

Mind-altering drugs make people feel good. Life is sometimes very, very difficult and painful, and drugs provide an ostensible way to escape the difficulties and pain. Of course, the reason that people take drugs are always individual ones. That is, the causes of drug abuse always have to be examined on an individual basis; one person might have been abused as a child, another may have just lost his business, and so forth.

Yet, a more general analysis is helpful as well. Why is there more drug abuse in one society than another? Is it possible that there are certain political and economic conditions that give rise to a general desire to escape from the pain of everyday life? I believe that it is possible — and that herein lies the reason that Americans of our time have a greater desire for drugs than our ancestors did.

Sixty years ago, Americans were encouraged to abandon the principles of freedom of their ancestors and to adopt the principles of the welfare state and the managed economy being promoted by the Europeans. Americans were warned at that time that the welfare state and the managed economy were dangerous ideas — ideas that would ultimately lead this nation to destruction. But Americans would not listen. Following the cue of their European counterparts, they blindly followed the New Deal of their political leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Americans adopted what their ancestors had rejected for 150 years — the welfare state and the managed economy.

It is not difficult to see today that those who issued the warnings were right in the end. Look at the type of society in which we live. Do you like it? Well, these are the fruits of the much-vaunted welfare state and managed economy that Americans were told would bring them nothing but prosperity and harmony.

What is the link between the type of political and economic system under which we suffer and the urge to trip out on mind-altering drugs?

The welfare state and the managed economy create a sense of hopelessness and despair. The welfare state provides a constant, never-ending message to us:

You are a bad people. You are an uncaring people. If you were not bad and uncaring, you would not have to be forced to be good and to care for others. If you were good and caring, you could be trusted to care for others on a purely voluntary basis. But you cannot be trusted to do the right thing. If we didn’t have Social Security, your parents would starve to death. If we didn’t have welfare, the poor would die in the streets. If we didn’t have governmental emergency relief, victims of floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters would go wanting. You are a bad, bad people. And you must be forced to be good.

And the managed, regulated economy provides the same type of constant, never-ending message:

You are a bad, irresponsible people. Without our threat of punishment, you would do bad things to yourselves. You are not old enough or responsible enough to manage your own lives. We will ensure that you make the right decisions for yourselves. If you fail to do the right thing, we will spank you and send you to your room in the nearest penitentiary.

What kind of self-esteem can a person ever develop when he is beset by these continual reminders provided by the state? And once a person becomes convinced that he is fatally flawed — that he is bad, uncaring, unworthy of trust, and unable to handle responsibility — then don’t drugs, including alcohol, provide a convenient way to escape the resulting shame?

But the welfare state and the managed economy do much worse than destroy individual self esteem. They also destroy hopes of improving one’s life.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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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.