Friday, September 26, 2008

Tough On What?

I'll keep this short, since I have one major question and I certainly don't have an answer:

How did we allow the Republicans to become both the tough-on-crime party and the gun party?

I'll elaborate, in case that question hasn't given you serious pause for thought (which it should have). The Republicans have been immensely successful (and not always incorrect) in portraying the Democrats as criminal coddlers, unwilling to punish evil and constantly searching for extenuating circumstances. They have been equally successful in portraying the War on Drugs as the greatest law enforcement enterprise of the modern era. They've been so successful, in fact, that we've actually lost the fight for drug legalization - it's a dead issue, as ruthlessly derided by liberals as conservatives. The parties now disagree only on whether addicts should be treated or imprisoned - in other words, coddled or punished. It's not hard to see where they get their stereotypes - if you really think drugs are immoral, which party looks like they're trying to get things done?

Take, for example, this essay by Jonathan Caulkins in response to an essay by the founders of Erowid:

I should be fair to Mr. Caulkins; I can't really find evidence that he is a genuine, card-carrying, gun-toting conservative. He worked for RAND, but that could go either way - and while there, he apparently authored a study on the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums. Not exactly a Republican poster child. With that said, his essay articulates a perspective on responsible drug use that I think the modern conservative would find highly appealing:

"Does society have a right to “protect” its citizens from a one-in-six risk of dependence, even though that “protection” denies five times as many people legal access to something pleasurable? The question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard. Note: the issue is not, “If the question were put to a referendum, would you vote yes or no?” Rather, the question is, “If the majority wanted such a law, would it be unconstitutional?” I am no constitutional scholar, but I do not believe access to a recreational activity or substance is a constitutionally protected right that forbids passage of laws designed to protect people from their own poor choices, particularly when sometimes the choices can harm others."

He's responding, of course, to the suggestion that five out of six drug users behave responsibly, without any harm to themselves or others. His argument, quite simply, is that those five must surrender their recreation so that society can be protected from the sixth. Notice the mild tone of contempt at the end there - he's no constitutional scholar, but he's pretty sure you don't get special dispensation just because it's fun.

But wait just a minute. What about guns?

Let's leave aside the constitutional issue for just a moment - because let's face it, the Constitution is an inviolable document when people want it to be and malleable clay when they don't. Right now, the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it won't be. Right now, heterosexual marriage is not constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it will be. Irrelevant.

Doesn't the fundamental notion that five people's rights must be sacrificed for the protection of the sixth fly in the face of everything the Republicans have to say about gun control? By this compelling conservative anti-drug logic, shouldn't all gun owners voluntarily surrender their weapons so that society can be protected from the fraction that will go out and kill someone? Keep in mind that even the recreational use of guns is violent. They have only one purpose, even to their advocates, and that is to cause harm.

Don't think I've overlooked the fact that Dr. Caulkins' argument is also fundamentally and irredeemably false - we'll return to that in a later post. Don't think, either, that I'm arguing against the right to bear arms - that's a complex debate to which I also hope to return. All I want to ask now is, how can the Republicans have their cake and eat it too? How can they argue that society must be protected from a substance whose side effect is sometimes death, and not from an object whose purpose is always death? How can they ban the drug syndicate's product, but not its most valuable tool?

And by what possible barometer are they tough on crime - and we're not?

Republicans have long claimed that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." By what possible token does that not apply to psychoactive drugs?


ashanan said...

Are you sure that blog post you're referring to is from the Erowid blog? I'm pretty sure Cato Unbound belongs to the Cato Institute, which you may or may not be surprised to find out is a libertarian think tank.

You ask:
"How can they argue that society must be protected from a substance whose side effect is sometimes death, and not from an object whose purpose is always death?"
And here's how:
Drugs can only kill a) the user, or b) innocents. The protection of the former is covered in your question, and the protection of the latter needs no explanation. If you look at guns from a personal safety standpoint (and not all do, clearly, but that's not the point), the person who dies is a robber/rapist/what-have-you. In their view the government is providing the people protection from assault by allowing them the right to bear arms.

As an aside, I would be really interested to see some statistics on the number of gun deaths caused by legal vs. illegal guns.

Free Radical said...

I knew about the Cato Institute; the essay to which Jonathan Caulkins is responding is by the founders of the Erowid Institute, which is what I tried lazily and failed to convey. It was one of the lead essays in the most recent Cato Unbound, and Caulkins was a reaction. It's been corrected in the body of the post.

I don't think you've quite taken my point, which is really about the classic conservative argument from personal responsibility. The quote at the bottom of my post really encapsulates everything: it doesn't say "guns only kill BAD people", it says "guns DON'T kill people." In other words, it asserts that NO MATTER WHO IS KILLED by a gun, the responsibility rests with the actor, not the gun itself. I didn't make it up; it's been the pro-gun mantra for decades.

If I were to say, then, that drugs (which can, by the way, kill anyone they please, provided they were given an overdose) have no agency in accidental deaths, and that the personal responsibility lies with the drug user (who must then be charged), how have I altered the substance of their argument one iota?

The argument you articulate is a PLAUSIBLE gun defense, but not the most famous or widely-held one - which hinges on personal responsibility. To put it another way: Caulkins says that drug prohibition laws are designed to "protect people from their own poor choices," and I think that's a very fair characterization. I think it's also wildly at odds with the overall Republican philosophy - given that they favor no other social protections whatsoever, including (or especially) welfare.

This internal contradiction outs them - like anyone was surprised - as hypocrites willing to justify their intrusive morality by any means necessary. Small, hands-off government, except when we don't like it, right?

ashanan said...

Well said.