Let me clear the underbrush by once again pointing out that this magazine is editorially opposed to the drug war and has been for a long time. Meanwhile, I still favor keeping hard narcotics and other addictive substances — coke, meth, heroin etc — illegal, but I am in favor of the decriminalization of pot. I say all of that simply because drug war posts encourage lots of email from people who are on autopilot about the subject and they assume all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily true. Better to say that once, here, than in a hundred emails.
Anyway, something has always bothered me about the standard indictment against the drug war, largely rehearsed here by Will Wilkinson. Actually lots of things have bothered me about it, but I’ve never seen this discussed much from people who don’t already agree with the legalization position. Namely, the argument that the drug war is racist. Here’s Will:
Did you know that the United States of America, the Land of the Free, puts a larger portion of its population behind bars than any country on earth? Thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, Americans lock more of their own in cages than do the thuggish Russians or those “Islamofascist” Saudis. As it happens, American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election. Militarized police departments across the nation month after month kick down the wrong doors, terrify innocent families, shoot lawful citizens, and often kill the family dog.
I’m not casting doubt on the statistics they cite or the sincerity of the arguments (I’ve argued with too many liberatarians and legalizers about drugs to doubt their sincerity on the issue, statistics are another matter). But something has always bothered me about the drug war is racist argument which, in fairness, Will only suggests above.
It seems so, well, unlibertarian — at least in one respect. Sure, as an argument against the unintended consequences of what they consider to be a bad policy, the disproportionate affect on blacks works just fine.
But as an argument from proud individualists it seems a bit off. It seems to me that the classical liberal is supposed to see people as autonomous and sovereign moral actors, not identity politics groups. I’m hard pressed to think of another area where libertarians are so willing to talk about racial or ethnic groups as a class. For all sorts of reasons, few libertarians would countenance the argument that capitalism is disproportionately harsh on poor blacks. Or, more specifically, libertarians generally shun the idea that it’s racist for banks to disproportionately deny loans to minorities if/when minorities are disproportionately likely to be bad credit risks. Or at least I think they do. But for some reason they seem awfully comfortable with language that, by implication, sometimes makes it sound like blacks are involved in the drug trade because, well, that’s what blacks do.
Moreover, unlike other government policies that discriminate based on the basis of race, the drug war’s much lamented racism is more of a byproduct than anything else. Admissions policies that keep Asians or Jews out of elite colleges are explicitly and inherently bigoted: “We have too many of your kind here, we need more of the other kind, even if they’re less qualified.” Meanwhile, the drug war — despite the many authentic tragedies it produces — doesn’t set out to punish blacks because they are black. It sets out to punish people who sell (and to a lesser extent buy) drugs and use violence to protect their trade. That blacks are disproportionately in this line of work is certainly lamentable. But no sane person who supports the drug war would be anything but delighted if African-Americans abandoned both drug taking and drug selling en masse.
It seems to me, the only way the “racist drug war” argument really works on libertarian grounds is if you take for granted that it is a bad policy in principle and that its proponents know it is a bad policy but support it anyway for evil reasons. Then the disproportionate racial consequences can be scored as the desired ends of intentional means. But I don’t think that’s a great argument, at least not from libertarians, not least because it is untrue.
Or maybe I’m missing something.
Update: See this post above.
Update II: From a reader:
One thing you almost get at but not quite:
The purpose of the drug war is not just to “punish”* those who use and sell drugs, but to protect the rest of the community– those affected by drug use.
to the extent that drug criminalization policies succeed in this, then it may be blacks that disproportionately BENEFIT from the drug war.
It is of course an open question whether the policies succeed in their goals. Bottom line: bringing race into it clouds the issue. Despite the fantasies of libertarians and liberals, I do not think that anyone supports the drug war for the purpose of screwing over blacks.
While I expect no better of liberals, libertarians GREATLY diminish themselves by their attempts to play the race card with this issue.
* I would also say that those incarcerated, such consequences often set those individuals on the right path (go to any AA/ NA meeting), and so they, too, “benefit” from the drug war.
Again, see the post linked in Update I.