Why Do Gerson and Wehner Think The Drug War Helps People?

Why Do Gerson and Wehner Think The Drug War Helps People?
July 19, 2014

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

Gambling and marijuana are corrupting the people and Michael Gerson is on it:

Two of the larger social trends of our time — the growth of payday gambling and the legalization of marijuana — have two things in common: They are justified as the expansion of personal liberty, and they serve the interests of an expanding government. The ideological alliance behind these changes is among the strangest in U.S. politics. Libertarians seek to lift governmental restraints on consensual acts. State governments seek sources of revenue without the political inconvenience of requesting broad tax increases. Both find common ground in encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses and addictions of citizens. (And business interests and their lobbyists, of course, find new ways to profit from reliable vices.) …

Parents no longer expect much help from government in reinforcing the cultural and moral norms necessary to the raising of responsible, successful children. But now some states are profiting from actively undermining those norms. Apparently, only consenting adults matter. Libertarian utopias are always childless. For the strongest ideological advocates of this approach, the outcomes are largely irrelevant. It ultimately doesn’t matter if teen drug use increases by X percent or gambling addiction rises Y percent. Ending “consensual crimes” is a matter of principle — not just on pot and slots but on heroin and meth. The idea of a political community upholding standards, in order to help other institutions (such as families) pass healthy cultural norms between generations, is anathema.

It goes on from there as you might expect. Peter Wehner joins in on the idea here, in the odd context of advocating policies that will appeal to… single women? Emphasis mine:

In addition, Republicans would be wise to enlarge the social issues they speak about. Liberals and the elite press will want to keep the focus on issues like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Republicans need to counter by speaking in compelling ways about the intellectual and moral education of the young, about education as the civil-rights struggle of this generation, and protecting children from harm, including drug use and standing against drug legalization. They need to speak about an agenda focused on social mobility and helping people gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in a 21st century economy. Republicans also need to make it clear they want to strengthen, rather than weaken, the social safety net, including about the purposes of government in ways that reassures rather than unnerves people, especially those who are most vulnerable.

I have difficulty with viewing these arguments from Wehner and Gerson (and David Frum) as anything but naive posturing. For Gerson, the aim seems to be that the drug war is something that is helping people, and backing off from it is bad for society; for Wehner, he seems to conclude that the path back to electoral success is doubling down on the drug war to appeal to single women and moms.

Given the logic of Gerson’s piece, I have a hard time seeing what shouldn’t be banned as a waste of money or a private vice in the name of his favored cultural norm. He argues that making something that is illegal legal – thereby reducing crime, reducing the prison population, and taxing the activity instead represents an expansion of government. I see no conceivable way this is accurate. On the drug front, the experience in Portugal completely goes against the idea that decriminalization breeds greater government dependency (fewer addicts using fewer social services, fewer people in jail and the courts, and so on). Yes, of course there will be some Americans who choose the simple life of welfare, Medicaid, and marijuana – but given that decriminalization of low level drug offenses also means that we will stop sending hundreds of thousands of young fathers to jail, the social dependency outcomes there are at worst a wash – and I would argue that over time, this will lead to dramatically less government dependency as opposed to the status quo for people bouncing in and out of prison.

Nothing has done more to increase government dependency than government drug policies which have dramatically increased the number of single moms who are pushed to look to government for help and become trapped by that help. There are 1.5 million kids in America who have a parent in jail, and of those in federal prison, half are there for drug related crimes. The continued criminalization of even low-level drug offenses has dramatically increased the burden on the welfare state and government dependency. How on earth does supporting a policy that often is the cause of making these women single moms by throwing their children’s fathers in jail something that will win the votes of single women?

On the gambling front: there is precious little evidence of a dramatic increase in dependency associated with areas around casinos, nor has there been an increase in the number of compulsive/problem gamblers despite the dramatic increase in casinos over the past several decades (the research on that also actually indicateseven fewer problem gamblers online, because they stop quicker). If Gerson wants to argue against something demonstrably unfair to the civic order, he shouldcriticize state lotteries, which are ever-present, cash-based, purposefully target poor areas, and actually doen’t make a lot of revenue for states. While casinos are typically gambling destination spots for the better educated middle class (they want people with more money to burn), state lotteries are only played by the dumb and desperate because of the ridiculous odds. State lotteries function as a regressive tax on people who don’t make enough money to pay a lot of taxes, while casinos function as a sin tax on people with disposable income. And if the latter is the unacceptable, we better start banning a lot of other things, too.

Here as in so many cases, those who are defending the status quo of American policy toward drugs and gambling, arguing against the current push for legalization, also demand that those who seek more liberty prove, beyond a doubt, that eliminating the current restrictive policy will have no negative outcomes. Gerson and Wehner would be better off presuming a default policy in favor of liberty and self-determination over the power of the state. Instead, we should demand a very high burden of proof from those who seek to restrict liberty and expand the state. If Gerson truly believes that the drug war represents a “political community upholding standards, in order to help other institutions (such as families) pass healthy cultural norms between generations,” then he must demonstrate how our these policies actually do that, and how helping parents enforce those norms is worth breaking up tens of thousands of families, instead of just ignoring the ample evidence of the failure of the drug war as irrelevant. Who knew that what was really crushing civil society all along wasn’t working class dads bouncing in and out of prison for non-violent crimes, but the creeping pestilence of pot, porn, and poker?

Perhaps they needs to revisit the understanding of what a Republic is. I’ve always thought John Wayne’s description, as Davy Crockett in The Alamo, is apt: “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”

[Originally published at The Federalist]

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)