Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Politics and Prohibition

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Politics and Prohibition

Article excerpt

Thoughts on Freedom

Writing in the December 2001 Atlantic Monthly, Judge Richard Posner called for an end to the "war on drugs." He is among a small but growing number of eminent scholars and officials who openly advocate that the state get out of the drug-prohibition business. Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. have long pressed for an end to drug prohibition. They've been joined in recent years by, among others, former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, New Mexico's governor Gary Johnson, and the editors of The Economist.

Judge Posner cites the new war on terrorism as the looming practical reason for ending the drug war. He points out that socalled "drug crimes" are victimless. Any threats posed by terrorists intent on slaughtering innocent people are immeasurably more serious than are whatever threats might be posed by people voluntarily purchasing, selling, and ingesting narcotics. And because expanded efforts to guard against terrorism require resources that have until now been used for other purposes, a sensible way to achieve the necessary reallocation of resources is to stop trying to protect people from themselves so that we can better protect people from violence initiated by others.

I cheered when I read Posner's call to end the drug war. While I oppose drug prohibition principally on ethical grounds-I believe that each adult owns himself and ought to be free to do with himself as he pleases-I agree that practical exigencies, rather than moral-based reasoning, provide the best hope of ending the drug war. Maybe .. perhaps ... just possibly the intensified necessity that Americans have for wiping out terrorism will cause us to understand that continuing the drug war is too costly.

But I doubt it.

Apart from its immorality, the war on drugs has been too costly from its inception. This "war" has long consumed billions upon billions of dollars' worth of resources, all spent with no discernable positive impact. Indeed, the only clear impact of the drug war has been a repulsive trampling of freedoms. Asset forfeitures, government espionage on its own citizens, and racial profiling are just the most blatant attacks on our freedoms unleashed by the war on drugs.

If the need to make sensible tradeoffs really drives voters and politicians, the drug war would have ended ages ago.

Astute readers might reply "No! Alcohol prohibition ended after just 13 years when Americans realized that it was failing."

That's the popular belief. It's wrong.*

National alcohol prohibition in the United States began on January 16, 1920, following ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and enactment of the Volstead Act. Speakeasies and gangster violence became familiar during the 1920s. And yet Americans kept drinking. But contrary to modern belief, the 1920s witnessed little sympathy for ending prohibition. Neither citizens in general nor politicians concluded from the obvious failure of prohibition that it should end. As historian Norman Clark reports,

Before 1930 few people called for outright repeal of the [Eighteenth] amendment. No amendment had ever been repealed, and it was clear that few Americans were moved to political action yet by the partial successes or failures of the Eighteenth. . . . The repeal movement, which since the early 1920s had been a sullen and hopeless expression of minority discontent, astounded even its most dedicated supporters when it suddenly gained political momentum.

What happened in 1930 that suddenly gave the repeal movement political muscle? …

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