Hopped Up on Government: How the Drug War Leads to the Nanny State

A few years ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated a city-wide ban on soft drinks over 16 ounces. The mayor and the city’s health department believed super-sized sodas to be a threat to the peoples’ health, but they also believed that people, given the choice, would slurp down ice cold Coca-Colas by the gallon. The solution, Bloomberg claimed, was government action.

Conservatives were quick to jump on Bloomberg’s case. Townhall.com labeled him “Nanny Bloomberg.” National Review predicted failure for Bloomberg’s plan because, “like other central planners, he is going to learn, no matter how much he dislikes it, that people have their own desires about how to run their lives.”

Conservatives were absolutely right. The idea that it’s the government’s job to stop people from making unhealthy decisions is leftist nonsense. They were also right to doubt the effectiveness of these laws because it is an immutable law of economics that where there is demand, supply will follow.

Conservative Nannies

It was ironic that conservatives were so vocal in their criticism of Bloomberg, since they have for decades been so reliably in favor of drug prohibition. Even as it stared them in the face, conservatives couldn’t realize the truth that the arguments they made against Bloomberg’s soda ban were just as deadly when aimed at the war on drugs.

Conservatives never explained, for instance, why it’s so silly to suggest that government should stop people from pounding down sugary drinks while it is decidedly not silly to suggest that government should stop people from getting high. On one issue conservatives staunchly upheld the individual’s freedom of choice and on the other they denied that very same right.

The problem for conservatives is that it is impossible to deny a right in one instance without undermining it entirely.  They may have accurately diagnosed the problem with Bloomberg’s plan, but they failed to see that banning sodas is just an extension of the prohibitionist policies they already accept. After all, if it is government’s job to stop people from doing drugs, why can’t it be government’s job to stop people from drinking (or eating, or inhaling, or seeing, or hearing, or learning) the wrong thing, as defined by the government?

This problem exists for all of the “drugs are bad” arguments. “Drugs don’t hurt just the users,” prohibitionists say, “they also hurt families and society. So, yes, governments should make them illegal.” But what’s the assumption here? It’s that it is the government’s job to provide for the welfare of families and society – and from this assumption it’s a small leap to all kinds of other government programs that claim to protect the people.

Under this line of reasoning, it’s not long until we logically reach the nanny state that conservatives love to loathe. Alcohol, poverty, education, guns and more become the concerns of government, with new laws and regulations the obvious solutions.

As Milton Friedman said, once the premise underlying prohibition is accepted, there is nothing that can escape the purview of government. Once the prohibition genie is out of the bottle not only can drugs be made illegal but also soda, burgers, guns, skiing, skydiving and pretty much anything else. The state can, and will, stop anyone from doing anything it perceives as unsafe or undesirable – and if you have accepted the premise, you are without a logical foundation to deny their claim of the right to do so.

How the Drug War Makes Drugs More Dangerous

Despite these points, some will still say that legalizing drugs is simply too dangerous. As evidence they reference the unhealthy lifestyles of drug addicts and the crimes they commit. The truth, however, is that the prohibition of drugs is many times more dangerous than the legalization of them is.

How can this be? Well, for starters, the prohibition of a product does not nullify the demand for it, a fact that conservatives are quick to point out when liberals talk about gun control. So the drug war does not actually end the demand for drugs, nor does it prevent drugs from being produced and marketed. All it does is drive those activities into the black market, which leads to more potent narcotics and more violent drug merchants.

This phenomenon is what economist Mark Thornton has called “the economics of prohibition.” The market for drugs operates like the market for any other product, with producers seeking to maximize profits and consumers looking to maximize value. When prohibition is introduced, it alters the incentives for both producers and consumers which leads to changes in behavior.

Prohibition leads to the supply of more potent drugs by increasing the cost of producing, transporting and selling drugs of all types. Economist Benjamin Powell explains, “In order to minimize the risk of detection per amount of narcotic supplied, suppliers make drugs as small and light as possible. This means higher potency.” In his research, Thornton has calculated that over 90 percent of the increase in marijuana’s potency between 1974 and 1983 could be explained by the war on drugs.

Powell goes on to explain that drug prohibition actually increases the demand for more potent drugs (like cocaine) over less potent drugs (like marijuana), because the less potent drugs are comparatively more expensive in that it takes more of them to achieve the desired result. In addition, prohibition leads to lower quality products and less manufacturer responsibility because the ordinary features of the free market – brand reputations, consumer lawsuits and the like – are not permitted to function.

All of this leads to a more dangerous situation for drug users, who are more likely to use harder, lower quality drugs than if prohibition didn’t exist. Powell cites data showing that, “From 1971—two years before the creation of the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Administration and Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs—to 2007, the rate of death from a drug overdose…increased by a factor of ten.”

Drugs and Crime

Not only does the drug war make the situation worse for drug users, it endangers society as a whole. Rather than normal businesses manufacturing and selling narcotics, under prohibition these activities are taken up by criminals. Thornton writes, “For people already engaged in criminal careers, prohibitions provide new and enhanced profit opportunities that may increase the number of crimes they commit…”

Because of who is selling drugs, the entire business becomes dangerous. Powell writes, “the drug business is violent precisely because it is illegal. Illegal businesses can’t settle disputes in court, so they do so through violence.” That violence is obviously not confined to the people involved in drug transactions, but also spills over to innocent bystanders and residents of neighborhoods where drugs are sold. Economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that, “the homicide rate is 25-75% higher than it would be in the absence of drug prohibition.”

What’s more, this problem is international, as violent drug cartels gain power and reap huge profits by exporting drugs to the U.S. Author Don Winslow has written that, “The cartels routinely torture and slaughter, they put their decapitations out on video clips. They’ve depopulated entire villages, co-opted police and government. …they kidnap immigrant families, force the husband or a brother to mule drugs across the border by threatening to kill the family, and then often kill them anyway.” Some studies estimate the number of Mexicans killed by the drug war there to be close to 50,000 in the last decade alone.

Repeating History

None of this should be surprising to Americans, who have the Prohibition Era of the 1920s to look back on. When the federal government prohibited alcohol, each of these problems arose. Drinking alcohol during prohibition became riskier than it had been before. At least 10,000 people died from alcohol that had been intentionally poisoned by the government and which bootleggers had attempted to purify before selling it to consumers. The potency of alcohol increased and Thornton observes that “bootleg whiskey contained 50-100 percent more alcohol than the average market whiskey.”

There is also the well-known story of how organized crime went immediately into the alcohol business at the start of Prohibition. Gangsters like Al Capone began raking in money from the sale of bootleg liquor, with the rise in their profits rivaled only by the increase in violence. When Prohibition was ended in 1933, everything went back to normal. As Powell summarizes, “When alcohol was prohibited…violent criminal gangs catered to the nation’s thirst for alcohol. When Prohibition ended, normal businesses returned to the market and violence subsided.”

Love Liberty? Legalize Drugs

It’s no coincidence that the few conservative voices who have spoken out in favor of drug legalization – among them Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams – have primarily been economists. To most conservatives, criminalizing drugs may seem like a good way to stop people from doing them, but these “supply-side” solutions are economically untenable and destined to fail.

Along the way, prohibition harms many more people than legalization would. Drug users are worse off because they’re using harder and more dangerous drugs. Society is imperiled due to the increased violence emanating from the black market. Hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders are thrown in jail and subjected to prison brutality, only for engaging in an activity that actively harms no one else

But while knowing the negative consequences of the drug war is helpful for refuting the utilitarian arguments made by prohibitionists, we don’t need to know all the ways that the drug war is bad in order to be against it. The prohibition of drugs is an attack on the individual liberty and personal responsibility that both libertarians and conservatives value. Conservatives cannot believe in drug prohibition and hold to any logically defensible definition of liberty.

It is important to understand that arguing against the drug war doesn’t mean that you’re advocating drug use, any more than arguing against soda bans means that you’re advocating gluttony or arguing against gun control means that you’re advocating murder.

Rather, arguing against the drug war simply means that government – which, remember, is understood by conservatives to be inefficient, ineffective and primarily interested in the extension of its own power – has no role to play in preventing people from using drugs because it will do so inefficiently, ineffectively and only in order to grow its own power.

No utilitarian argument for the supposed necessity of the drug war is a good enough reason to let the state out of its box.

Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click here for the full list of articles.