Originally published by the Future of Freedom Foundation
Statists of every variety — left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, progressive/moderate — disagree vocally and often. Although these groups may argue among themselves and with each other about any number of issues — health care, education, Social Security, the environment, tax cuts, business regulations — they all have one thing in common. The statists are all paternalistic and believe in some kind of a nanny state to monitor the behavior of its citizens.
Oh, statists may disagree on the nature, scope, and features of their vision of the nanny state, but rarely on its necessity.
This paternalism is at its worse when it comes to the war on drugs. It is here where caring liberals and compassionate conservatives unite with the religious and the irreligious to not only deprive people of their natural, moral, civil, and constitutional rights to buy, sell, grow, manufacture, or ingest whatever substance they choose forwhatever reason they choose, but to criminalize such activity, and sometimes severely.
This attitude of prohibition and criminalization is ultimately based on two things: taking drugs is bad for one’s health and taking drugs is morally corrupting.
The hypocrisy of drug warriors is legion.
Every bad thing that could be said regarding drug abuse could also be said of alcohol abuse — and even more so.
Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings, home accidents, suicides, pedestrian accidents, fires, car accidents, violent crimes, boating accidents, child abuse cases, sex crimes, and divorces. The number one killer of young people under twenty-five is alcohol-related automobile accidents.
Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. It can also be a contributing factor in cases of cancer, mental illness, and cirrhosis of the liver. And obviously, it is the cause of various fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
According to a study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs recently published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, alcohol ranks as the “most harmful drug,” beating out heroin, crack cocaine, and ecstasy. Numerous studies have shown that smoking marijuana is much safer than drinking alcohol.
Yet, in spite of the negative effects of alcohol on morals and health, few Americans would like to return to the days of Prohibition.
But it’s not just on the subject of alcohol that the hypocrisy of drug warriors is manifest.
People from all across the political spectrum generally resent federal, state, and local government efforts to regulate what they eat and drink.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted to forbid restaurants from giving gifts with meals (like McDonald’s Happy Meals) that contain too much fat and sugar. Some cities have banned the use of trans fats in food preparation. Bacon-wrapped hot dogs were banned in Los Angeles in 2008. A bill introduced in the New York legislature earlier this year would have banned the use of salt in restaurant cooking. Ten states ban the sale of unpasteurized raw milk. Officials with the county Office for the Aging in Putnam County, New York, prohibited the donation to senior citizen centers of unused cakes, donuts, and pastries from local bakeries because it set a bad nutritional precedent. Many school districts have banned soft drinks and junk food from school cafeterias. Some politicians have even called for warning labels or taxes on junk food. The Food and Drug Administration has its food pyramid that promotes grains and demonizes fat — something that more and more doctors and nutritionists are coming to realize is the cause rather than the cure for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Civil libertarians, freedom lovers, and strict constitutionalists decry — and rightly so — many, if not all, of these nanny-state measures to control what people consume. But most of these same people are ardent drug warriors who have no problem locking up their fellow Americans in a cage for consuming a substance that the government doesn’t approve of.
The fact that most U.S. prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders, that waging the war on drugs costs American taxpayers over $40 billion a year, and that the costs of drug prohibition far outweigh the benefits is of no consequence to these health and morals crusaders.
But the hypocrisy of drug warriors is not their only shortcoming. Even worse is their failure to see the dangerous result of their acquiescing to the state, as this classic passage from the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises so eloquently explains:
Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
These fears are not merely imaginary specters terrifying secluded doctrinaires. It is a fact that no paternal government, whether ancient or modern, ever shrank from regimenting its subjects’ minds, beliefs, and opinions. If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The naive advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem. They unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters.
Drug warriors can’t have it both ways. No free society is worthy of the name if its government can selectively ban certain drugs. Any prohibition on the manufacture, sale, possession, or medicinal, therapeutic, or recreational use of drugs is an attack on personal freedom. The war on drugs is a war on liberty. A moral and healthy society achieved at the cost of liberty is not worth having.