Posted on August 22, 1999
The Libertarian Lie
Deterrence works, and they know it
by Daniel Clark
Punishing an activity is the most certain way to generate more of it, say the Libertarians. The cause of drug abuse, the theory goes, is drug legislation, because it tempts rebellion. Ditto that for prostitution; if it were legalized, don't you know, it would all but disappear. Abortion, they say, is only as widespread as it is because it was illegal for so long. If it is banned once again, Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne warns smugly, "men will start having abortions."
Contrast this with the position taken by the Libertarian Party platform on the issue of gun control. It opens by stating, "The Bill of Rights recognizes that an armed citizenry is essential to a free society." Then it calls for opposition to, and repeal of, all gun control laws. This conclusion is 180 degrees removed from the rest of the Libertarians' social philosophy. If they find their own arguments about drugs, prostitution and abortion at all convincing, they should expect that laws banning and restricting gun ownership are precisely what are needed to produce an armed citizenry.
Such a suggestion would surely be laughed out of the convention hall. Libertarians know that law-abiding citizens are deterred from owning guns when the law forbids them to do so. So why do they abandon this logic with regard to other issues, and why do they succeed in peddling their perverse theory to others?
The second of these questions can be answered in part by the ubiquitous prohibition comparison that Browne and others use the way a baseball manager uses an ace relief pitcher. In a pinch during an argument, a simple "but prohibition didn't work," is typically enough for a Libertarian to claim victory. On the surface, it seems reasonable enough, at least where drugs are concerned. Since alcohol is a drug, one might suppose, and its prohibition was ineffective, then the prohibition of narcotics must be ineffective as well. But upon further examination, the banning of hard drugs is as distinct from prohibition as heroin is from beer.
What made prohibition a losing proposition from the start was the degree to which alcohol consumption was ingrained in, and accepted by, the American public. As serious as our drug problem may be, it generally remains on the fringes of society. Disobedience of prohibition was common among ordinary, respectable people. Many of our grandparents could tell us stories about frequenting speak-easies, but not many of us will ever wax nostalgic about smoking in crack houses.
Furthermore, pointing out the failure of prohibition to stop drinking does nothing to support the Libertarians' claims of causality. Consumption of alcohol was widespread in America before prohibition, as it has been since its repeal.
If prohibition caused consumption, as they claim, then the drug explosion that started in the sixties should have occurred a half-century before. In 1914, Congress banned non-prescriptive use of narcotics through passage of the Harrison Act. If the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, caused people to drink, then a boom in addiction to narcotics should have been nearly concurrent.
Perhaps as problematic to their argument is the outbreak of LSD use during the late sixties, when that particular drug was still unregulated. According to the Browne Theory, this should never have happened, for the very reason that the drug was legal. The banning of LSD, which was done in reaction to its rise in popularity, should instead have preceded it.
To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms of the "war on drugs." Overzealous pursuit of drug offenders has resulted in routine violations of individuals' Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and more to the point, the Constitution does not indicate a federal role in drug policy in the first place. The Libertarians, however, go beyond arguing for devolution of drug legislation to the states. They want drug use legalized across the board, as if it were a constitutionally protected right.
Their problem is that this position is unpopular, especially among conservatives, who are their allies on so many other issues. But what if they can make the case that the two factions have a common cause--that drug legalization, which the Libertarians want, is actually the means by which to reduce drug abuse, which is what conservatives want to do? Since this proposal so clearly defies logic, though, the Libertarians needed to produce "proof" of its merit. Hence the legend of the "failed" war on drugs.
The Libertarians' claim that the war on drugs has failed seems to be based on their representation of it as having continued through the Clinton administration, during the first term of which teen drug use rose significantly. But the drug war ended the day Clinton was sworn in. Shortly thereafter, he all but abandoned interdiction in favor of "prevention programs," and decimated funding for the drug czar's office. His Attorney General, Janet Reno, explained the administration's lax approach by differentiating between drug offenders and "real criminals." Nobody would mistake that for a war cry.
The Reagan and Bush drug policies, by comparison, were effective, if heavy-handed. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, illicit drug use peaked in 1979, then declined steadily until the arrival of Bill Clinton. At that point, drug use among minors started to increase significantly, and only began to level off after Clinton's p.r.-driven hiring of Barry McCaffrey. If the war on drugs caused rebellious drug abuse, there would have been much more of such rebellion during Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign than we see today, during the presidency of Roger's brother.
The Libertarian arguments on prostitution and abortion, being farther removed from the prohibition example, are even more obviously silly.
Very few people, other than Hugh Grant, can consider an arrest for soliciting a prostitute to be a beneficial career move. Surely, the threat of punishment deters quite a few potential participants. Anyone who doubts this can visit the twelve counties which allow prostitution in that cradle of chastity, Nevada.
Legality is a dependable selling point for "counselors" when they try to sell a woman an abortion, because it implies the support and approval of society. But Browne's snotty remarks suggest not only that disapproval and threat of punishment would fail to deter women from abortion, but that they would drive a lot of women who otherwise wouldn't have abortions to do so out of mere spite.
The fact that these arguments even need to be debated is discouraging, because they are not only stupid, but deliberately so. It is against the Libertarians' nature to concern themselves with restraining the prevalence of activities which they believe to be private in the first place. Indications to the contrary are staged for the benefit of conservatives. To understand why, one must understand the way that Libertarians view their role in relation to conservatives, which goes something like this:
Libertarians are intellectuals. Conservatives are bumpkins. Bumpkins mean well, and have traditionally been trusted allies of the intellectuals where simple issues, like Second Amendment rights, are concerned. That's why intellectuals can be forthright with bumpkins about gun control. When it comes to complex social issues, though, bumpkins still think simplistically and therefore are incapable of understanding why the intellectuals' positions are correct.
Unfortunately, bumpkins are much more plentiful than intellectuals, so they must be persuaded to support the intellectuals' philosophy, if it is to prevail. Therefore, the bumpkins must be lied to--not maliciously, but the way a small child might be lied to about the death of a family pet.
Handily, many bumpkins eagerly want to be thought of as intellectuals. For this reason, against their own judgment, they decide to believe what the intellectuals tell them, and repeat it, confident that it will make sense once they've graduated to become complex thinkers.
If Libertarians were honest, though, it would be seen that their politics are actually both consistent and simple. They favor legalizing drugs and prostitution, and oppose banning abortion, because they want to be able to get drugs, prostitutes and abortions. Likewise, because they want to be able to get guns, they defend the Second Amendment.
Libertarians adhere to a fundamental belief that people should be left alone to do what they want to do. Any pretensions they make about defending the Constitution or the public good fall by the wayside when they conflict with that driving principle. That isn't a difficult philosophy to comprehend. It's only when the lying starts that inconsistencies arise, which is exactly the way they want it. When it comes to the Libertarians' social agenda, the last thing they want is the straight talk which they portray themselves as famous for.
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