The War on Drugs Opens a New Front

By Leef, George C. | Ideas on Liberty, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The War on Drugs Opens a New Front


Leef, George C., Ideas on Liberty


The capacity for self-aggrandizement by government officials is boundless. Napoleon was not content just to rule over nearly all of Europe. He had to try to expand his power until he ruled all of it. Ultimately, that ambition proved to be his undoing.

For our hordes of politicians and government functionaries, however, the quest for greater authority and larger budgets rarely entails any warfare or personal danger. It only calls for the creation of new problems (or better yet, "crises") that can supposedly be solved only by intervention. As H.L. Mencken once wrote, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Dissect almost any political proposal and you will find it ultimately rests on the supposition that freedom is dangerous and that we need to have new laws, regulations, and programs to protect us from it. The War on Drugs provides an excellent example.

The War on Drugs has succeeded in stopping American citizens from using drugs with every bit as much success as Prohibition succeeded in stopping Americans from consuming alcoholic beverages, and does so with a similar cost in lives lost, promotion of violence, corruption, and waste of resources. Yet it goes on and on, demanding more money and power to protect us from the horrors of drug use. And it too exhibits the Napoleonic impulse to fight new battles and conquer more territory. Consider, if you will, the recent statement by then-"Drug Czar" General Barry McCaffrey that there is a hitherto overlooked area of human life where the efforts of the drug warriors are needed: chess.

Yes, chess. The venerable game of analysis and strategy has been around for centuries. Organized competition goes back to the midnineteenth century. The few scandals that have arisen have had political roots, such as the question whether Paul Keres was ordered to "take a dive" by the Soviet government in his championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik. No one has ever suggested that there was any problem of chess players' using drugs to gain an advantage over their rivals in the intense mental combat of chess games. Until now.

In the September 2000 issue of Chess Life, McCaffrey contributed a short article, titled "Checkmate: Drug-Free in Body and Mind." He begins by trying to draw an analogy between chess and athletic competition, then leaps to the conclusion that since various drugs are banned in athletics, they should also be banned in chess tournaments.

He writes:

Even long-distance running involves some of the principles sharpened in chess-from defensive maneuvers and offensive moves to opening positions, middle-games, and endgames. Front running, for instance, at the beginning of a race may hurt a competitor by preventing surges of energy near the finish line. Like rooks, pawns, and other chessmen, runners jockey for position and labor to avoid being boxed in. Because mind and body are intricately connected, psychoactive substances should be banned from chess tournaments as they are from basketball, weightlifting, and other events played singly or in teams.

To begin with, McCaffrey's analogy is pretty silly. True, some sports involve an element of strategy (although it is hard to see how weightlifting can be among them), but it scarcely follows that the rules that various athletic associations have adopted for themselves are necessarily sensible or appropriate in chess. The fact that if you play badly your pieces might get "boxed in" like a runner in a pack in no way demonstrates the need for "substance control" in chess. The fact is that human beings can make strategic misjudgments in any field of endeavor, but that does not prove the need for universal "substance control" rules, much as that might appeal to General McCaffrey.

Moreover, it is impossible to see from McCaffrey's article just what the problem is.

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