Rush to Judgment

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

There has been a lot said about Rush Limbaugh’s recent woes involving his history of drug abuse. But, in the interest of piling on, let me say a bit more.

First of all, while downing a hundred Oxycontin tablets a day in a seven-week binge is almost certainly not a good idea, I am not attacking Limbaugh for his slide into addiction. No man who was known, in his youth, to occasionally gobble down four or five hits of acid at a Grateful Dead concert can afford to be too harsh on the indulgences of others.

But Limbaugh is not merely a private citizen who happened to develop a drug problem. He is also a famous political commentator whose views influence millions of others. And as far as I can tell, he never stopped recommending that others go to prison for what he himself was doing. Ellis Hennican quotes Limbaugh from 1995:

"There’s nothing good about drug use… We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families. Drug use destroys societies. Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. And the laws are good because we know what happens to people in societies and neighborhoods which become consumed by them. And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up." There is some ambiguous evidence that Limbaugh may have changed his opinion by 1998, when he suggested legalization, but on the whole those remarks seem to me to be a sarcastic comment on the plight of the (legal) tobacco industry.

Now the response of conservative defenders of Limbaugh is likely to be along the lines of, "True, he did not live up to the principles he espoused. But simply because he was weak doesn’t mean his position against legalization is wrong. In fact, his own case just goes to show how dangerous illegal drug usage is."

This is fine, as far as it goes. The fact that we are all sinners does not mean we must all advocate sinning. But it doesn’t get Limbaugh out of this jam. That is because if he, in fact, is still in favor of drug users being convicted and "sent up," then he ought to voluntarily go to prison himself. He should now fully cooperate with prosecutors and not accept any penalty less harsh than those he recommends for others. If drug users in general should be "sent up," then so should Limbaugh.

But that is apparently not the strategy Limbaugh is pursuing. As explained by Randy Barnett, Limbaugh’s refusal to discuss details of the drug charges appears to be part of his defense strategy. Barnett’s hypothesis was strengthened by Limbaugh’s subsequent public statement, where he said: "The authorities are conducting an investigation, and I have been asked to limit my public comments until this investigation is complete.”

If Limbaugh were going to voluntarily accept the penalties that he has enthusiastically endorsed for others, than he wouldn’t need a defense strategy. He would simply come forward and say, "Yes, I did it, and I will serve the prison time recommended by law."

As a prominent public opinion leader, Limbaugh has taken on a responsibility. If, at some point in the past, he had vigorously opposed the drug war, his opinion would have had a huge influence on his many devoted fans. Thousands of drug users could potentially have avoided prison if drug laws were simply made less harsh, even without full legalization. It is wildly inconsistent for him to now attempt to lessen the penalties he faces when so many others are imprisoned, just as he has recommended.

October 14, 2003

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives


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