Archive for the ‘Libertarianism’ Category

The Libertarian-Democratic Alliance Will Survive

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Jon Henke over at The Next Right scoffs now at Markos Moulitsas’s prediction – a few years back – of “an emerging brand of ‘libertarian Democrats.'” Henke makes two mistakes in his scoff: first, he equates the tea bagging movement with libertarianism; and second, he is extrapolating from the immediate post-election dynamics to more general party dynamics in the future.

In the first, he is certainly right that the Tea Bagging movement has adopted libertarian themes and rhetoric – and there are certainly libertarians among this group. But there are also many right-wingers of other sorts. And if the Tea Baggers truly were outraged by government spending, they had eight years to get excited before Obama took office. The Tea Bagging movement is an odd combination of right-wingers angry with Obama using libertarian rhetoric and libertarians who are fed up with everyone in American politics except Ron Paul. But I’d be pretty certain that the majority of people at these rallies decrying socialism and government interference also join in the right-wing’s attempts to demonize Obama for his modest steps in reining in the national security state.  Henke – in equating the Tea Bagging movement and libertarianism does libertarians a rather severe disservice.

Second, it was inevitable that the libertarians that were part of the anti-Bush coalition would not fit so well into the pro-Obama coalition, despite their support for Obama over McCain in 2008. It was always clear that Obama would not move fast enough on national security matters – and would not even attempt to go far enough for libertarians – and that Obama’s domestic agenda, especially health care, goes against libertarian principles. That said, there are significant areas of agreement between libertarians, progressives, and liberals – and these are considerably stronger than those between right-wingers, Republicans and libertarians. On economic matters, the Republican Party has done very little to embrace free market reforms – instead, embracing a form of crony capitalism; on national security issues, the party has embraced every accoutrement of a police state; on spending, Republicans have been far more fiscally irresponsible; on social issues, the Republican Party has abandoned libertarian principles and embraced a christianist platform. The Democratic Party – on the other hand – is for reigning in the police state (though not enough); and on social issues, it often sides with libertarians; on economics and spending, this gets more complicated. Obama’s positions do seem at first glance to be exactly what libertarianism stands against – but if I’m right about what Obama is doing – that he is adapting the Democratic Party and liberalism to a market-state in which the state seeks to provide the maximum opportunity to its citizens rather than providing for them (as socialist, Communist, and post-New Deal American capitalist states did), then the Democratic Party’s economic platform will be less of a threat to libertarian values and the party will be more or less aligned with the libertarians on every issue.

These first years of Obama’s presidency were always going to strain the libertarian-Democratic alliance. But it seems the long term trends favor this alliance.

[Image by Brian Buchanan licensed under Creative Commons.]

There Is Such A Thing As A Right to Health Care

Monday, July 13th, 2009

F. Paul Wilson had a post that was reddit-famous last week (in the Libertarian subreddit) in which he declared “There ain’t no such thing as a right to health care.” He proposed “the alone-on-a-desert-island rule [as] a convenient way to differentiate genuine human rights from the poseurs.” The genuine human rights are inherent, according to Wilson – and he says – on this desert island alone – one has the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the right to free speech, free sexual expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to smoke or inject anything you want. What you don’t have – according to Wilson – are the right to a house (because there is no one to build it), the right to three solid meals a day (because there are no farmers), or the right to health care (because there are no doctors.)

But by Wilson’s “alone-on-a-desert-island rule” Iran would be considered quite free. Fine – they don’t have freedom of assembly – but you can’t have that on a desert island. They don’t have free speech in public – but they would in the privacy of their own homes (in their own, walled-in desert island), especially if no one was listening. The Iranian authorities actually  allow their people a broad range of rights as long as they keep their activities private.

The problem is – as social animals, humans cannot fully express their freedom of sexuality, the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, or many of their other freedoms except in the presence of others. Many of the rights we take for granted are social rights – relying on others to a society to make these rights possible.

Perhaps the distinction Wilson is trying to make is between negative rights – rights which constrain the government – and positive rights – rights which impose responsibilities on the government.

The right to health care is one of the latter – but that does not make it any less a right. While the right to health care is not absolute – as if one is alone on a desert island, one has no such right, just as one has no right to assemble, or vote – few today would deny that each individual has a right to some level of care if they are sick and injured. While Wilson is concerned about imposing a burden on doctors, they have already sworn an oath to provide such care if it is needed, a responsibility they take upon themselves with their profession.

This right to health may not be inherent – but that does not make it less substantive. All humans live in some sort of society – as it is our nature. One of the most basic purposes of a society is to take care of the sick and hurt. As a citizen in such a society, I have a right to health care – even as it imposes a burden on others, just as I have a right to vote, even though others must then count my vote, and as I have the right to an attorney if accused of a crime, even though this imposes another burden. It is a right inherent in my citizenship, in my status as a member of a society.

[Image by Matthew Winterburn licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Generational Bargain (in which we are getting screwed)

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:

California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.

Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:

We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.

California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:

  1. a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
  2. the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of  increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)

This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.

This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.

Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

David Brooks explained this grave situation facing Obama and the difficult tasks ahead (focusing especially on the growing deficit). Brooks concludes with reasons for hope and despair:

The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.

Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.

[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]

  1. This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. []

The Limits of the Free Market

Friday, June 12th, 2009

George Will:

Trillions of dollars of capital are being allocated sub-optimally, by politically tainted government calculations rather than by the economic rationality of markets. Hence the nation’s prospects for long-term robust growth – and for funding its teetering architecture of entitlements – are rapidly diminishing.

The president’s astonishing risk-taking satisfies the yearning of a presidency-fixated nation for a great man to solve its problems. But as Coolidge said, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” What the country needs today in order to shrink its problems is not presidential greatness. Rather, it needs individuals to do what they know they ought to do, and government to stop doing what it should know causes or prolongs problems.

One thing that has frustrated me greatly over the past months has been George Will’s apparently unshaken faith in the perfection of the free market. Here he demonstrates this again – speaking of the “sub-optimal” allocation of resources by the government. I have to wonder what he makes of how the financial sector allocated resources over the past few decades. At this point, I think most of us can appreciate the value of  “sub-optimal” investment when compared to the catastrophic investments the “free market” allowed.

It’s not that I don’t think Will has a point. For one, I tend to agree with his anti-royalist attitude towards the executive branch. And secondly, I agree with him that a free market, by distributing resources and power among many actors, can achieve a kind of collective wisdom – and by allowing constant tinkering and creative destruction we allow for the possibility of positive black swans. This is the genius of the market, rooted in the knowledge that no one person or team of persons can know enough to guarantee the right decision. Instead, the best results are obtained by creating many seperate decision-making bodies and creating a structure that allows those that are actually successful to be rewarded.

But Will doesn’t seem to have noticed the serious flaws in the American and worldwide market – or at least, the only flaws he seems to have noticed are those involving government interference.

Even in the most traditional analysis, bankers got into this crisis largely because they were able to escape regulation. They created shadow banks, derivative products, and other complex financial instruments which were designed to evade any regulations in place. George Will and others will likely point to government-backed organizations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as key causes in inflating the housing bubble – but it is difficult to actually make this case – as these institutions, for their size, weren’t that involved in the subprime mortgage market – and in fact were pushed to become involved by the enormous profits being made by the banks. What Will doesn’t want to acknowledge was that even in this most traditional analysis, the root of the problem is the misalignment of incentives rather than government distortions of the market.

What Will fails to acknowledge is that our markets are constricted by lack of government interference. The freedom of the financial marketplace – especially the distribution of power and decision-making that makes the market work – is severely restricted by the size of our banks. Their size not only makes them too big to fail, it also prevents the market from being free.

Our financial and automobile industries have ended up combining the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism – without the benefits of either – and that is even before the government stepped in.

Think about it – the free market is effective because it prevents any small set of individuals from monopolizing decision-making. Especially in the world today with so much information available and events moving so quickly, the “right” business choices to make aren’t always clear. A free market – by allowing each business to make its own choice – prevents decision-making from falling victim to individual follies. But our current economic system – with it’s enormous corporations – ends up recreating the feudal system in which power is not centered in a single place, but in a handful of powerful “princes.” While these “princes” push for free market reforms, it is not in their interest to actually achieve this ideal free market – as Yglesias points out:

As a market approaches textbook conditions—perfect competition, perfect information, etc.—real profits trend toward zero. You make your money by ensuring that textbook conditions don’t apply; that there are huge barriers to entry, massive problems with inattention, monopolistic corners to exploit, etc.

George Will himself has pointed out that those “reforms” that are passed tend to be of a specific sort, following what Will calls, “the supreme law of the land…the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” What free market supporters rarely seem to admit is that the free market exists not in spite of the government, but because of it. And today, our market is far from free because the government has failed to protect it – and has instead allowed the worst characteristics of capitalism (exploitation of labor; externalizing as much cost to society as possible, for eg. pollution) with the worst characteristics of socialism (concentration of power and limitation of competition) to create a kind of modern feudal society. In  this feudal society, freedom is enjoyed by the “princes” of finance and industry while the creative ferment of a real free market is formally protected but effectively quashed.

I would like to see George Will take on the limitations of capitalism at some point. As a conservative and an intelligent man, he must see they exist.

[Image by mischiru licensed under Creative Commons.]

Brink Lindsey v. Paul Krugman

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Last night taking the train home, I started reading Brink Lindsey’s essay in Reason countering Paul Krugman’s analysis of inequality in American history – and specifically what has caused inequality to worsen.

Now – my head was a bit fuzzy as I have a pretty bad head cold at the moment – but I found Lindsey’s argument was rather persuasive. Surprisingly so – as I’ve cited Krugman’s arguments on this issue many times on this blog (including here and here). I also recognize Lindsey’s phrase describing Krugman’s view holds an essential truth about this progressive understanding. I myself tried to express this – in a way to diffuse the charges of socialism during the campaign – “Leave It To Beaver Socialism.”  Here’s my description of the goal of Obamanomics:

Obama’s economic plan is not about socialism or revolution or any such radicalism. He’s not that type of politician. The goal of his Obamanomics (if you will) is not a socialist paradise or a European-style market socialism but a restoration of the economic justice that made 1950s and 1960s America so stable. Unless you think Leave It To Beaver took place in a socialist nation, then Obama’s economic plans shouldn’t strike you as far left.

At the time, I both recognized the power of postulating an ideal past which we should hearken back to – and understood that this is the root of reactionary politics. There is a proper way to understand history – and to try to achieve a balance that once existed. But very easily, with a slight misstep, you find you are trying to recreate a now defunct world – which is the founding myth that every reactionary subscribes to.

Lindsey concludes his essay:

[R]easonable people disagree hotly about what ought to be done to ensure that our prosperity is widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t lead us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies never do.

Powerful stuff, true or not. And it is certainly making me reevaluate my understanding of the historical causes of inequality in 20th century America. I’ll have to read the essay again with a more clear mind. I tried looking for a progressive debunking of the essay – but all I found were attacks on Lindsey or Reason or libertarianism.

To be clear though – I haven’t abandoned my Krugman-inspired view of the economic history of 20th century America yet – and Lindsey’s argument was better at poking holes in the story offered by Krugman than giving a convincing portrait of its own. I suspect the truth may be found by accepting that liberal and conservative policies together led to the growing inequality we are experiencing today.

The Unintended Consequences of a War on Drugs

Monday, March 9th, 2009

American libertarian Alan Bock at Antiwar.com:

The most efficacious approach [.pdf] to stemming the violence in Mexico is to recognize that just as what most newspapers blithely call “drug-related crime” is actually drug-law-related crime or even drug-law-caused crime, the wave of violence in Mexico is not caused by the inherent viciousness of the Mexican underclass or the physiological properties of drugs deemed illicit, but by the set of perverse incentives that arise when governments treat adults like children and dictate what they can ingest, attempting to prohibit plants and substances that are easily grown and formulated and for which there is a steady demand. The violence in Mexico is not “drug-related” but “drug-law-related” or even caused directly and indirectly by the laws attempting to prohibit the use of some substances.

While I do not agree with the moral aspects of Bock’s approach – which attribute the moral failings of individuals to government policy – and place the moral blame for these actions on the government – his policy analysis here strikes me as fundamentally sound.

What’s Wrong With the Stimulus Plan

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Aside from the partisan power play that seems to be motivating most of the Republican opposition to the stimulus plan, there are a number of fair-minded criticisms.

First, the plan lacks the Obama touch – the deft promise to cut those programs that don’t work and to make sure the ones that are around still do work, the libertarian paternalistic designs of Cass Sunstein, the nimble government program that does not coerce but merely offers opportunity. Of course, there is a sensible reason for this. The stimulus is needed right now – and it will take time to design new programs with this balancing between libertarian principles and liberal ends in mind. So, Obama has decided that this stimulus package must work within existing programs – which Republicans have used as an excuse to attack those programs.

Second, there is not a clear exit strategy. Many of these spending measures and tax breaks are supposed to be emergency measures that the government will only maintain during this crisis – but new spending and cuts in taxes both are hard to roll back. The idea that taxes are hard to raise is, of course, the basis of the “Starve the Beast” strategy that conservatives adopted (as described by George Will):

For years, many conservatives advocated a “starve the beast” approach to limiting government. They supported any tax cut, of any size, at any time, for any purpose, assuming that, deprived of revenue, government spending would stop growing.

But they found out that spending was also hard to cut:

But spending continued, and government borrowing encouraged government’s growth by making big government cheap: People were given $1 worth of government but were charged less than that, the balance being shifted, through debt, to future generations.

Obama’s stimulus plan involves both increasing spending and cutting taxes. The question is – can we then raise taxes and cut spending after this is over? Obama has clearly indicated he intends to – and to shore up America’s long-term fiscal solvency by dealing with entitlement spending too. If he is able to pull off this Grand Bargain, then he will belong in the rank of the best presidents. If he is not, then this temporary increase could have disasterous effects.

Third, by trying to act so quickly, there will inevitably be unintended consequences. To avoid as many of these as possible, the bill should be cleaner and its provisions should work faster.

Fourth, as Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post:

As it turns out, President Obama didn’t make the tough choices on the stimulus package. He could have either used the program mainly (a) to bolster the economy or (b) to advance a larger political agenda, from energy efficiency to school renovation…There were tough choices to be made – and Obama ducked them.

This bill is something of a muddle so far, in part because of the need for speed, and in part because Obama has let the House and Senate Democrats craft the bill, waiting to give his input until the conference in which the bills passed by the House and Senate will be reconciled.

Fifth, the bill offers both short term stimulus measures and downpayments on longer term (and worthy) projects. A stimulus bill should only include spending in the short term. The 75% goal Obama has set is too low. Every dime in the stimulus package should be out by the end of 2010. Kay Bailey Hutchinson ably stuck to this point in her Meet the Press appearance this past Sunday. Her confident demeanor and obvious grasp of policy made me wonder what had led John McCain to bypass her in choosing his Vice Presidential nominee. 

In short, most of the bills problems seem to come from the speed with which it is being forced out. This is a tradeoff Obama seems to be willing to make – as this bill is intended primarily to demonstrate that stimulus is coming and the problem is being taken seriously.

How the War on Drugs Is Making America Less Safe From Terrorism

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

The War on Drugs is undermining America’s War on Terror by:

  • creating an adversarial relationship with a large portion of the country;
  • calling into question the legitimacy of the rule of law and law enforcement;
  • competing for law enforcement resources; and
  • revealing the measures we take to track money being laundered and to stop smuggling.

The threat of terrorism is real, if often exaggerated for political purposes; and the consequences of a low probability, high impact attack could be catastrophic. If terrorism is our most immediate national security threat, then we must rearrange our priorities and end the failing Drug War.

The prosecution of Tommy Chong (half of the perpetually baked comedy duo Cheech and Chong) illustrates some of these points.

The state of Pennsylvania prohibits the shipping of drug paraphernalia – such as bongs – into it’s state. In 2003, a man from Beaver Falls, PA began calling a store in California run by the family of Tommy Chong asking them to ship him a large order of bongs and assorted other glassware. A manager at the store claimed that man called at least 20 times – and each time a representative of the store told him they could not ship to his state, citing the Pennsylvania law. This very determined man traveled to California to order the items – but he was not determined enough to stay around until his order was packed up. He returned to Pennsylvania. The store still refused to ship him the items – but after a few weeks, they gave in to his repeated demands.

That was the excuse a SWAT team needed to raid the store and arrest Tommy Chong. The entire operation was set up by a U. S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan. The net cost to the taxpayer to put Tommy Chong  in jail for 9 months (Chong was convinced to take the fall although he didn’t run the business and had nothing to do with this incident) was $12 million. Tommy Chong, reflecting on the lessons of his experience pointed to “the absurdity of the War on Drugs when we have a much more pressing – and wholly unrelated – war on terrorism to worry about.”

I only disagree with the sage Tommy Chong in that the two wars are wholly unrelated. They are related intimately – and the war against Tommy Chong is making the war against Al Qaeda harder.

The most profound way the War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror is how it calls into question the legitimacy of the rule of law and of law enforcement. Tommy Chong’s case is not atypical in how disproportionate the resources used to take him down were to his threat to society – from the millions of dollars spent to the SWAT team to the sting operation – you would expect him to be some kind of violent drug lord. Chong’s case is exceptional only due to his celebrity. The number of hours dedicated to fighting the Drug War against American citizens is incalculable. Each arrest for possession, for possession with intent to distribute, or any other of a long list minor offenses involves the time and attention of police officers, as well as judges and attorneys. Yet with all this effort, this War on Drugs has been fruitless. As Ben Wallace-Wells subtitled his summary of the War on Drugs: “After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and Plentiful as Ever.”

Excessive force is often used in the Drug War – and not just against isolated individuals. The libertarian CATO Institute has documented the enormous number of paramilitary raids – mainly involved in the War on Drugs. They cite an estimate of 40,000 paramilitary raids a year – including many which kill innocent bystanders or are raids on the wrong address. In an example from just a few months ago, police raided the home of the mayor of a small suburb outside of Baltimore and shot his dogs in search of marijuana. The mayor and his family were innocent, as were the dogs. One of the mayors neighbors said to him after the police raid: “If the police shot your dogs dead and did this to you, how can I trust them?

At the same time, the Drug War has alienated a large segment of its population from its law enforcement and national security agencies. At times – especially as in the case of Tommy Chong – it seems to have become a surrogate for a culture war. Largely as a result of the War on Drugs, America has the largest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. Yet most offenders of drug laws are never imprisoned – as it is estimated that nearly 7% of Americans use illegal drugs every month. Among the Americans to cross into enemy lines in the War on Drugs include our last, current, and future presidents. The War on Drugs has created an adversarial relationship between the government and a large portion of Americans.

The failures of the Drug War haven’t yet affected the War on Terror because it has largely been seen as something “different,” something which unites all Americans, which transcends boundaries. Mobsters, drug dealers, smugglers, and even governors of Illinois may be threats to the rule of law and targets of law enforcement, but they, with law enforcement, see terrorists as enemies of civilization. The Sopranos illustrated this with a storyline in which a mobster is asked by the FBI to keep a lookout for suspicious activity – and he is eager to. But the War on Drugs keeps threatening to undermine this essential distinction, as law enforcement uses powers designated to it in order to fight terrorism for other ends.

The War on Drugs also competes with the War on Terror for government resources and attention. This refers not only to the degree to which the FBI, Customs, and local police forces must split their attention between the two Wars – thus shortchanging both, but also to the more formal war in Afghanistan. Our anti-drug policy is driving the poor farmers of Afghanistan to seek the protection of the Taliban according to President Hamid Karzai. At the same time, even as additional resources have been allocated at the federal level to combat terrorism, local police forces must now split their attention – and their efforts in the Drug War often undermine the trust they need to prevent a potential terrorist attack.

More insidious though is how the intersection of the War on Drugs and the incentives of drug trafficking create an infrastructure that can be used for terrorism as a Congressional report from 2004 explained. The enormous profits involved in drug trafficking have incentivized an industry dedicated to undermining our national security infrastructure – it has created experts in smuggling to get contraband through or around Customs and into America; it supports an industry of money laundering and of illegal weapons and false identifications. All of these are useful and often essential to a terrorist operation – and yet none of these could be adequately financed by terrorism alone. The efforts of the War on Drugs reveal weaknesses in our national security to drug dealers and terrorists alike. One of the authors of a study of America’s vulnerability to nuclear terrorism joked the best way to smuggle nuclear material into America would be in a package of cocaine. If America were to focus our national security efforts – including efforts to track suspicious money and to prevent smuggling on terrorist-related targets, less would be known of our capabilities.

The War on Drugs has failed in its objectives. It affects Americans unequally and unfairly. And it is making us less safe. There is an international consensus on the dangers of heroin and cocaine trafficking – and we should continue to combat them. But we stop fighting a “War on Drugs” that is undermining the War on Terror.

We must rationalize the drug laws – by equalizing the penalties across similar classes of drugs and by legalizing those drugs health experts agree are less dangerous and addictive while continuing to make efforts to reduce the demand for and smuggling of the rest. We must end the “War on Drugs” that is targeting a significant percentage of American citizens and helping to destabilize countries around the world. We must stop blurring the lines between our efforts to stop drug trafficking and the War on Terror. The best defense against terrorism is a people who trust law enforcement, respect the rule of law, and are knowledgeable about threats.

The War on Drugs is squandering this resource. Which is why we must end it.

[Picture licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of CmdrGravy.]

Illegal Drugs and the War on Terror

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

In researching a post I was working on, I came across a Congressional report from 2004 that I was surprised I hadn’t heard about. Entitled “Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat: Causal Links and Implications for Domestic Drug Control Policy” [pdf], it lists five potential links between drug trafficking and terrorism:

  1. Supplying cash for terrorist operations;
  2. Creating chaos in countries where drugs are produced;
  3. Generating corruption in law enforcement, military, and other governmental and civil-society institutions that either build public support for terrorist-linked groups or weaken the capacity of the society to combat terrorist organizations and actions;
  4. Providing services also useful for terrorist actions and movements of terrorist personnel and material, and supporting a common infrastructure, such as smuggling capabilities, illicit arms acquisition, money laundering, or the production of false identification papers;
  5. Competing for law enforcement and intelligence attention.

The report focuses on how drug trafficking undermines the War on Terror – but it makes clear both the current quagmire that is the Drug War and the ways in which the incentives created by the War on Drugs undermine the War on Terror.

Now at first glance, it may seem as if the War on Terror and the War on Drugs should be benefit one another. After all, a successful policy that made heroin production and trade less profitable or more difficult would deprive the Afghan Taliban from one of their primary sources of cash. A successful anti-smuggling policy would make it harder for drugs to slip across the border as well as terrorists and weapons.

The Bush administration meanwhile has sought to conflate the two wars – for example, by running ads immediately in the aftermath of 9/11 claiming that drug money paid for terrorism1 and by repeatedly using measures from the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures to go after drug offenses.

But looking more closely, one can see that the War on Drugs has often impeded the War on Terror in these very areas. For example, critics of the Bush administration’s drug policy in Afghanistan believe we are in fact driving poor farmers to seek the protection of the Taliban. By using laws designed for the War on Terror in the Drug War, it undermines claims that the War on Terror is “different” and should unite all of us. By using these new powers more often, law enforcement undermines it’s credibility. It’s a vicious cycle.

    1. At the time, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were not making money from the heroin trade however, so this was rather misleading. The Taliban in fact had prevented poppy-farming until they needed it as a source of revenue after they were ousted from power. The commercials based their claims on FARC in Columbia. []

    Carrie Fischer, Cary Grant, and LSD

    Friday, December 12th, 2008

    I listened to Leonard Lopate’s interview with Carrie Fischer earlier this week. Today, I just came across an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show.  She’s one interesting broad – to use an old term – and incredibly open about the troubles of her life. From the calls from Cary Grant telling her to stop taking acid to the breakup of her celebrity parents’ marriage to her job fixing up troubled scripts to the electro-shock therapy she now undergoes regularly (despite having lost four months of memories to it) to manage her manic-depression.