Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Power of the State

Ta-Nehisi Coates contemplates the human toll of our Drug War:
When people talk about ending the War on Drugs, or decriminalizing marijuana, or reining in stop and frisk, they are not simply talking about the right of private citizens to get high, they are talking about the right of private citizens to not be subject to lethal violence at the hands of the state.
I would like to start this by stating that I am somewhat sympathetic to the plight the individual of police officer. They are charged with protecting the public and servicing their employers (the taxpayers) with a judicious enforcement of the law. Individual officers do not have the luxury of contemplating the justice or barbarism of their job requirements while in the pursuit of a suspect who may or may not be armed.

Society at large, however, must deliberate exactly such questions, usually in the legislative process of a law's creation. Which I why I am so exasperated how self-proclaimed advocates of "limited government" continue to advocate an unlimited expansion of the state's ability to intrude on a person's private narcotic choices through the most onerous and violent apparatus of the state - the police force.

The problem is, and will continue to be, that the politics of the War on Drugs remains a winner among the Republican party's disproportionately older, rural, married and Caucasian constituency. The calls for "smaller" government are not really premised in any deep philosophic distaste for government power. It is premised in a deep seated philosophic distaste for government power in areas where government is objected for whatever personal or rent-seeking reason; like environmental regulations or minimum wages. The proclamations of support for a "small government" ideology should not be read as actual calls for "less" government, but simply "less" of government that "we dislike".

Conservative constituencies support the War on Drugs, and continue to make such polices politically popular, because for whatever reason they're allergic to certain to use of certain narcotics. I would argue, but can't empirically substantiate right now, that this relates to how an individual's culture and partisanship mediates their political ideology; as opposed to some deep-seated deliberation on the appropriate level of state power.

I conclude this to be the heart of the matter. Our Drug War's socially and economically ruinous tactics of incarceration and interdiction persist (and will continue to) because there exists a strong conservative constituency for such polices. My major complaint is that there is nothing "conservative" about this.

To avoid misunderstanding: I think the logic behind empowering the state to interfere with the incidence of externalized costs and benefits is well understood, especially when the incidence of such costs are unjust, inefficient, or non-welfare maximizing. Also, the scale and seriousness of a individual's, or a society's, drug dependency is certainly a legitimate point of discussion.

But the immediate conclusion that the modern state's most awesome power - the monopoly of violence through the power of a taxpayer provided police force - is the first and most appropriate tool to "force citizens to be sober" from a predetermined set of narcotics has to be the least "conservative" thing I can imagine.

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