Make Policy, Not War

Confusing drug policy with "war" is dangerous

Mr. Kopel is the research director for the Independence Institute
National Review Online, February 21, 2001 9:40 a.m.


Mr. Kopel is the author Militarized Law Enforcement: The Drug War's Deadly Fruit. Click here for a RealVideo of the speech Kopel gave on the subject.

No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country," observed Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America. The French aristocrat's 1835 predictions about the fragility of freedom were, unfortunately, proven true by the 20th century.

Just before America entered World War I, the federal government would still have looked recognizable to the authors of the Constitution. The small central government exercised only the powers which had been specifically granted by the Constitution. The top income tax rate stood at 2%.

A few months into World War I, the federal government was managing the entire national economy, and the income tax rate was 90%. "Confidential" census records were used to track down draft resisters. The Supreme Court issued the first decision in American history upholding the draft, even though the draft violated the plain intent of the Constitution to prevent growth of a large federal standing army.

With World War II the scope of federal power grew larger still, large enough to send American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps without trial. The United States was involved in the First World War for only two years, and in the Second World War for four years. But the Cold War lasted from the late 1940s until the late 1980s. During this four-decade war, the federal government became a creature without limits.

Before America's century of war began, Americans' contact with government was generally limited to a small number of laws enacted by state legislatures, the state legislatures being directly elected by the people. Now there is scarcely an area of American life that is not covered by some federal regulation, written in a Washington, D.C. office, and enforced by bureaucrats who have never been elected to anything. With the Soviet Empire dead, are we finally done with wars — and the attendant growth of government — for a while? Unfortunately, many government officials have come to enjoy the explosive growth of government power that comes from war. As a result, domestic policy objectives are elevated to the level of "war." Our government is now fighting a "war on drugs," as it earlier fought a "war on poverty." Attorney General John Ashcroft promises to intensify the "drug war" beyond even the Reno-Clinton levels, which saw record-setting levels of arrests, and "drug war" prisoners consume an ever-greater share of prison resources.

Confusing desirable domestic policies with "war" is dangerous. The urgency of war demands hasty action; Pearl Harbor didn't leave a lot of time for debate. But when domestic policies get enacted in a hurried manner better suited for wartime mobilization, the nation suffers.

The War on Poverty swept through Congress in the first few months of 1966. Many of the War on Poverty programs ended up costing billions of dollars more than was expected, and accomplishing far less. Indeed, many of them turned out to be very destructive to the people they were supposed to help. In retrospect, it would have been better to let the states experiment a while longer with various anti-poverty programs, so as to have better-refined models available for federal action.

Similarly, "War on Drugs" legislation has also been poorly conceived. Forfeiture legislation was hastily approved as a tool to deprive drug kingpins of their ill-gotten loot. But because legislatures enacted the forfeiture laws without taking the time to craft careful limits, forfeiture laws are used to rob innocent people of their property, such as people whose only "crime" is being Black or Hispanic and carrying large quantities of cash. Recent reforms have made some improvements, but the laws are still very heavily tilted against property rights.

The misplaced rhetoric of war also leads to the militarization of society, a condition that would have horrified the framers of the Constitution. For over a century, the posse comitatusact kept the United States military out of domestic law enforcement. The act was repealed a few years ago, thanks to the war on drugs. Many innocent people have been killed as a direct result.

Increasingly, the United States is coming to resemble a nation under martial law. Busses may now be stopped, and all the passengers searched, without the slightest hint of suspicion of illegal activity, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The government orders and encourages businesses to inflict random drug testing on millions of workers, as if the workers, like suspect civilians in an occupied, enemy nation, were under some obligation to prove their innocence over and over again. Prohibitions on old-fashioned guns like the M-1 carbine are demanded under the fictitious claim that these guns are "assault weapons" and therefore the "weapon of choice" among drug traffickers.

As long as "war" is part of national drug policy, the rights of the American people will be the main casualties.

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