A few decades hence, when drug prohibition is, like alcohol prohibition, an amusing byword for destructive, overweening, and failed government policy, we’ll look back and see the War on Drugs as just another socialistic disaster of the twentieth century, which Ralph Raico calls “the century of statism.”
The War on Drugs and drug prohibition is of course an artifact of the 20th century with all its totalitarianism, central planning, socialism, and wars, both metaphorical and literal. It was not until the twentieth century that anything resembling drug prohibition ever became a matter of national policy in this country. Marijuana, like opium and cocaine, was mostly unregulated during the nineteenth century, but this doesn’t stop supporters of drug prohibition from acting like the re-legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is some kind of radical never-before-seen experiment in American history. Indeed, it is drug prohibition that is radical and contrary to the traditions of American law and society.
Alas, it was not surprising to see Pat Buchanan bemoaning the fact that nanny state has become just slightly less powerful in Colorado and Washington and that a ‘deeply libertarian trend’ is, in his view, taking hold in American society. For him, drug use, gay marriage, and prostitution, are all activities that absolutely require government regulation.
Buchanan plays the nostalgia card when he declares that the re-legalization of one drug, as well as the recent spread of gun ownership signals “a decline of community and the rise of the idea of the autonomous and privileged self.”
Like so many conservatives, Buchanan appears to equate government power with community power. In other words, for him, communities and private organizations are incapable of perpetuating their own values, mores, traditions, and rules without the heavy hand of government. This has long been a trend among conservatives, many of whom think that it’s the government’s job to do everything from tell people what holidays to celebrate to managing what countries they should be allowed to trade with.
To support his claim, Buchanan invokes an imaginary version of the United States that never existed in the 19th century, when America was a bucolic and tranquil republic of well-behaved people who followed the rules. (I’m not drawing on just his comments here of course. Buchanan has a long history of invoking imagery of a “united” and orderly America that never was.)
The fact of the matter is that drug use was rampant during the nineteenth century (but the number of drug addicts probably did not rival the millions addicted to alcohol during that time). To the extent that it was regulated, drug use was largely regulated by non-state actors such as families, and employers, and other private organizations. Drug prohibition did not become a matter for the government generally, and especially the national government, until the 20th century. And yet it was before this period of government overreach that some of the greatest advances in American standards of living, education, and declines in violent crime were made. Drug addiction still plagues us today, except today, we maintain a huge police state and prison complex, at taxpayer expense, to imprison, punish, and impoverish families already suffering from the ill-effects of drug use. Once upon a time, in an age past when the NSA wasn’t reading your email and the state didn’t regulate your every move, drug addicts were allowed to walk the streets! In that crazy America, the one that existed 100 years ago, no one was taxed to lock up other people for taking a dose of opium.
Moreover, into the 1920s, most everyone agreed that by law of the Constitution, the federal government could not regulate the purchase of substances like drugs and alcohol. This is why alcohol prohibition required a constitutional amendment. It was only during the 1930s and afterward, that the Constitution was thrown out the window and it was decided, without any regard for Article I of the Constitution, that Congress could suddenly regulate what people can injest or smoke.
As Mises observed, once a people concede that a government can regulate what one puts into one’s own body, a government essentially has carte blanche to regulate anything under the sun. Who can argue this has not happened just as Mises said it would?
Buchanan predicts “more potheads” and more car accidents and a host of other social ills. I don’t know how often Buchanan gets outside of the Beltway where he was born, bred, and still lives, but he obviously is not speaking from experience if he truly believes that the miniscule number of new potheads created by legalization cause any social ills that the average person need worry about. The point about car accidents makes it clear that Buchanan has apparently read the pro-government talking points that went out to government-lovers nationwide before the legalization took effect earlier this month in Colorado. Similar talking points are employed in this article that reads like parody with commentators asserting with a straight face that Colorado society will become a disaster-zone of crazed out-of-control potheads. Such references call to mind this spoof of the old public service announcement Reefer Madness which asserted that marijuana use would lead to murderous rages for boys and humiliating prostitution for girls. Does anyone under the age of 50 honestly believe such obvious nonsense?
In fact, pot has been quasi-legal here in Colorado for years, anyone who really wanted it could buy it, and the only change in January that took place was that retail shops opened in which anyone over 21 could buy some pot legally under state law. The disasters that the Drug War enthusiasts like Buchanan imagine are all hypothetical, but the fact that up until recently, the government of Colorado was locking people in cages for smoking joints is all too real.
Pundits like Buchanan and other friends of Huge Government should just come out and explicitly state, that yes, they do think that it’s better to lock people in government cages for smoking unapproved substances because, well, ruining the lives of small-time drug users is preferable to having a few car crashes or increases in sleep disorders. (We all know how alcohol doesn’t cause any of those problems.)
The fear of libertarianism that Buchanan expresses helps illustrate the fact that conservatives really do look to government to dictate to people the proper way to live: Speak English or else! Celebrate Christmas or else! Don’t rent your real estate to immigrants! Employ only government-approved workers! Don’t smoke that! Don’t trade with them! The left liberals are awful in their own way of course, but the conservatives, who so disingenuously claim to be the party of small government, are now left in the position of decrying even a tiny amount of government de-regulation in a few small areas of our lives.
4:03 pm on January 6, 2014 Email Ryan McMaken