Big Government Quagmire

One of the reasons conservatives favor limited government is due to the unintended consequences of government regulation, and the drug war is a prime example of this phenomenon. As I have previously blogged, ending the drug war is actually a conservative position – yet it has little support on the right, or the left for that matter. But last week, a U.S. federal appeals court judge suggested ending the drug war – and he was put on the bench and elevated by a pair of Republicans. Therefore, I believe this issue deserves closer examination by the right.

With so-called deficit hawks in Washington winning their battle against earmarks, the fiscal debate can now shift to further deficit reduction – where all spending should come under scrutiny. The economic impact of the drug war is far reaching, as Charles Shaw noted in the guardian (sorry):

Forty years. One trillion dollars. Half a million prisoners. Millions disenfranchised. Failed states. Spiralling cartel violence. No real drop in use or demand. This is the broadsheet for the American “war on drugs”.

So why does the US keep “fighting” this “war”? It’s as if the US is addicted to the war on drugs itself. International drug policy is at a tipping point, and the world seems ready to begin making serious shifts, yet the US still pursues this obsessive “war” against plants and people, even as the consequences of these policies have become larger than the problems they were put in place to solve.

Even the “liberal/progressive” Obama administration is maintaining the drug war, with Secretary of State Clinton recently vowing the United States would continue a policy of escalation in Mexico. As the escalating violence of Mexico’s drug war continues to dominate the news, this foreign policy experiment warrants examination.  From the BBC:

In the last four years nearly 30,000 Mexicans have been killed in an orgy of violence driven by narco-trafficking, gangsterism and organised crime.

More than 2,000 people have been murdered in the city of Ciudad Juarez alone.

The escalating body count can be traced back to a political decision. President Calderon assumed office four years ago with a promise to eliminate the drugs cartels once and for all.

He ordered the Mexican army and the federal police into the fight. Thousands of heavily armed troops moved into the narco heartlands close to the US border. A hornet’s nest was kicked, and sure enough the president has been badly stung.

“Why do we have narco-trafficking?” he [President Calderon] asks. “Because we are living beside the largest consumer of drugs in the world (the US) and everyone wants to sell him drugs through my window, through my door.” He adds that the assault rifles that flood into his country also come from the US. “They have a clear responsibility in this,” he says.

The US-Mexico relationship has always been fraught, and it still is. Grave concern about instability in Mexico – and the implications for illegal immigration and cross border violence – prompted Washington to offer $1.5bn (£1bn) of military assistance. “Intelligence sharing,” President Calderon calls it, though he categorically denies that the US is running surveillance operations over Mexican territory.

Over 28,000 dead in 4 years, as compared to the Vietnam War which lasted 16 years with 58,209 deaths, making the average death rate in the Mexican Drug War nearly double that of Vietnam. Additionally, the Mexican prison population has quadrupled.  Consider this in light of former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias’ statement that, “it’s almost impossible to be able to stop drug trafficking.”  Mexicans and Americans are being killed and imprisoned over an effort in futility.  This policy is clearly harming our neighbors, us, and the relations between our two countries.  At what point does the Mexican drug war become a civil war and Mexicans fleeing for the United States cease being illegal immigrants and become war refugees?  Can either country afford this?  How is this in either country’s best interests?

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but perhaps it’s not national interests that perpetuate this failed policy of prohibition, but rather political interests such as the support of large, influential lobby groups. More from Charles Shaw:

When you get down to it, beneath all the pontificate moralising on crime and drug use, the primary drivers of this issue are economic: money and jobs. Any significant shift in either drug control or criminal justice policy would invariably lead to politically unacceptable levels of unemployment. The US criminal justice system consumes $212bn (£132bn) a year and employs 2.4 million people, more than America’s two largest private employers, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, combined.

And just like military spending, any attempts to cut criminal justice or prison budgets is considered political suicide. This is because America’s war on drugs and its prison empire were built upon a “tough on crime” political philosophy that emerged 40 years ago in response to the social crises of the day. It has proven to be an intransigent ideology that now requires distorting the truth in order to maintain its own survival.

In 2008, Harvard economist Jeffery Miron estimated the government could save $44.1 billion in expenditures by ending the drug war,  while generating $32.7 billion in new tax revenue.  That’s a $76.8 billion swing!  (Source: PDF) Keep in mind the large number of criminal justice employees have contributed to the $4 trillion liability of public employee pensions, an amount usually not calculated into the $40+ billion per year spent by federal and state government, and continuing the drug war will place further pressure on public pensions.

Law enforcement is not the problem, though- it’s the policy and its unintended consequences. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman stated this principle eloquently in a speech titled, The Drug War as a Socialist Enterprise:

You all know Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand, in which people who intend to promote their own interest are led by an invisible hand to promote a public interest which it was no part of their intention to promote. I have for many years argued that an inversion of that maxim is also true: People who intend only to pursue the public interest are led by an invisible hand to promote private interests which it was no part of their intention to pursue. That is the case regarding drugs.

Whose interests are served by the drug war? The U.S. government enforces a drug cartel. The major beneficiaries from drug prohibition are the drug lords, who can maintain a cartel that they would be unable to maintain without current government policy.

In this same speech, Friedman said:

“The second lesson I believe that we should learn, and it’s probably the more important lesson, is that we are likely to make more progress against the war on drugs if we recognize that repealing drug prohibition is part of the broader problem of cutting down the scope and power of the government and restoring power to the people.”

It’s interesting to note that after Friedman’s speech, he took questions from the audience, and a young man challenged Friedman’s use of Adam Smith in regards to the application of free market principles to the drug trade. Interestingly enough, Smith did express his views on smuggling, writing in The Wealth of Nations it would, “ruin the smuggler; a person who, though no doubt highly blamable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.” I couldn’t agree more.

Those claiming to support limited government but who also favor continuing the drug war are trying to have it both ways. The defeat of Prop 19 in California suggests we as a people haven’t learned Friedman’s lesson: prohibition is larger government. It is my belief that repealing prohibition is the issue where the fiscal rubber meets the limited government road, but I have little faith the new Congress will be any different than any other Congress in the last 40 years. Prohibition opponents have their work cut out for them, but as more conservatives speak out on this issue, I believe more Americans will come to the conclusion that prohibition must end. It is my hope the evidence presented here can contribute to this conservative cause.

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