40 Years of Protecting Us from Ourselves

This week marks the 40th Anniversary of the “War on Drugs,” first declared by President Richard Nixon, who subsequently created the Drug Enforcement Agency. A piece on The Atlantic Wire reminds us about the drug war’s track record of failure, and ponders why it continues:

Though the size and cost of the DEA is but a fraction of total spending in the War on Drugs, you’d think its utter failure to stop drug use or the global drug trade would’ve prevented this from happening:

Almost every year the DEA budget and staff are expanded, never mind if the organization is succeeding or failing at its mission. This isn’t the DEA’s fault. The illicit trade in narcotics is a black market that cannot be eliminated in a free society. But why do legislators continue to increase its size?

Why do legislators continue to fight the unwinnable drug war, even when it encourages a black market in a product traded between consenting adults and is thereby responsible for out-of-control gang violence from Mexico to Chicago? A government that wants to force us to purchase health insurance “for our own good” has trouble resisting the siren song of the paternalistic argument for drug prohibition. In both cases, the argument is that government needs to protect us from the consequences of our own bad decisions. If we don’t have the right to go without health insurance, we certainly don’t have the right to take cocaine.

Writing earlier this year, our own Amber Chambers argued that the only way out of the drug war quagmire is to abandon the devotion to paternalistic government and embrace the value of individual freedom:

Once again the solution to the current violence in Mexico and the US is to end drug prohibition and restore Americans’ rights to produce and purchase what products they see fit. The markets, transporters, and buyers of alcohol can seek legal protection when a contract is violated, a product is faulty, or they’re threatened with blackmail. . . . Only by returning the sale of drugs to the province of legal trade, thus upholding individual rights, can we eliminate the crime inherent in unnecessary black markets.

Many drugs prohibited by the current enforcement regime are surely destructive of the lives of people who consume them. But it is their right to make this mistake. A country does not respect individual freedom if it only respects the right to make the right decision. Inherent in an individual’s right to liberty is the right to make a bad choice as well—provided that it leaves the rest of us alone.

Left to their own (self-destructive) devices, most drug users would leave the rest of us alone. All too often, drug cartels and their gangs, empowered by black market profits, do not. And neither does a paternalistic government.

Creative Commons-licensed picture from Wikimedia Commons

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.