John Walters, Drugs, and Libertarians

Over at Politico, former Bush administration drug czar and Hudson Institute official, John Walters, has an article titled, “Why Libertarians Are Wrong About Drugs.”  The thrust of the article is that (1) drug policy is one of the political divides between libertarians and social conservatives and that the social conservatives have the better case; and (2) libertarians can support the drug war without surrendering essential tenets of their political philosophy.  In this post, I want to briefly scrutinize some of Walters’ arguments and observations.

Walters tries to set up his article by framing the debate between social conservatives and libertarians fairly, but right away he falters. “Social conservatives,” he writes, “are troubled by drug abuse, especially among the young.” The implication seems to be that libertarians are not troubled by drug abuse–even if it involves minors. That’s unfair to Milton Friedman, who is quoted in that paragraph, and libertarians generally. I don’t think Walters is intentionally trying to mislead readers here, but that statement does expose one of his faulty understandings of libertarianism. The question has never been whether drug abuse is a problem. It is. The question is how best to address that problem.

Next, Walters tries to demonstrate that a basic tenet of libertarianism is inconsistent with reality–at least in the area of narcotics. Here is Walters: “[L]ibertarians argue that the state should have no power over adult citizens and their decision to ingest addictive substances–so long as they do no harm to anyone but themselves…But this harmless world is not the real world of drug use. There is ample experience that a drug user harms not only himself, but also many others.” Walters then cites instances of domestic violence and other criminal acts that were committed by persons under the influence of narcotics. More faulty reasoning

The libertarian critique of drug prohibition does not depend on the existence of a “harmless world.” I should not have to point out (but, alas, I guess I do for some) that libertarians have heard of domestic violence and drugged driving. We are also aware that criminal acts are sometimes committed by persons under the influence of narcotics. Now, let’s return to the tenet that Walters fairly stated, but misapplied: The state should have power over adults who harm others. A batterer, for example, should be arrested and prosecuted (whether he was stoned, drunk, or sober.)

The reality recognized by libertarians, but ignored by Walters, is that millions and millions of people use drugs peacefully and do not harm anyone. Our government treats these people like criminals and that is wrong. This is the real divide between neoconservatives like Walters (conservatives such as William F. Buckley and Thomas Sowell oppose drug prohibition) and libertarians. As drug czar, Walters approved television ads that said casual drug users were ipso facto guilty of serious crimes, such as supporting terrorists! Even before 9/11, First Lady Nancy Reagan said casual drug users were guilty of aiding and abetting murder. Libertarians vehemently reject such claims.

Walters does not address the unintended consequences of drug prohibition, such as the enrichment of gangster organizations, the billions wasted on futile interdiction operations, and the curtailment of our civil and constitutional rights by militarized police units and the use of civil asset forfeiture laws. Without any evidence, he expresses fears about the future of our political order because voters are starting to approve drug reform initiatives in Colorado and Washington and elect reform-minded candidates. And yet no mention of the corruption and carnage in Mexico that can be traced to neoconservative drug prohibition policies. Also no mention of Portugal and its successful move to decriminalize drugs there in 2001.

The libertarian case against drug prohibition is gaining traction both here at home and around the world. Like alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition will eventually come to an end.  We should welcome, not fear, that development.