Monday, October 25, 2010

21st Century Jeffersonianism vis-a-vis Libertarianism

The libertarian ideal is that the individual should have the maximum amount of freedom, tempered only by an absolutely minimal amount of interference from government. Some libertarians go so far as to favor the abolition of the state entirely, while others believe that the only legitimate governmental institution is a minimalist judiciary to arbitrate disputes between citizens. Libertarians generally feel that the state has no business regulating the activities of citizens and that everything should be left to the free market.

In some ways, Thomas Jefferson leaned towards libertarianism. Intellectually, at least, he favored a minimalist state that interfered in the lives of its citizens as little as possible. As President, he shrank the government. In his struggles with Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was the champion of local control against those who sought to increase and expand the power of the central government.

So, it is clear that there was a streak of libertarianism that ran through Jefferson's political philosophy. The same is true of 21st Century Jeffersonianism. We believe with the libertarians that the telos, the end towards which we strive, should be for every individual to have the greatest amount of freedom possible. To this end, we believe in a small government that intervenes in the personal lives of the people as little as possible.

But Jefferson, despite efforts by libertarians to claim him as one of their own, would never have gone nearly so far as modern libertarians do. Jefferson understood that, in addition to being a large number of individuals, society is also a collective whole that possessed collective interests, and that government is sometimes the only means to further those collective interests. As a state legislator in Virginia, Jefferson authored laws to regulate those activities of citizens which he thought needed regulation (smallpox inoculations, for example), and while he was certainly a small-government oresident, he would have seen any suggestion that the government be abolished as ludicrous.

The problem with today's libertarians is that they are, by and large, devotees of pure theory, rather than practical men and women who are willing to adjust their beliefs to the realities of the modern world. Some of them are indistinguishable from the most rabid religious fundamentalists, holding up the collected works of Ayn Rand as their Bible. And one of the lessons of history is that when devotees of pure theory are actually handed the reins of power, the results are usually disastrous. One can look at the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the economic meltdowns that have resulted in innumerable countries from religiously-strict adherence to either socialist or capitalist economic philosophies.

If you want a real-world example of what happens to a society without a government, take a look at Somalia.

And then there's the fact that strict adherence to libertarian ideas of individual freedom result in the exploitation of individuals. Consider the case of Michael Clauer of Frisco, Texas. While serving as a National Guard officer in Iraq, bravely fighting for his country, his paid-for home back in Texas was foreclosed on and sold because his wife had accidentally missed a few payments to their local home owners association. She had been suffering from depression due to her husband's absence and had allowed the mail to pile up.

In the libertarian world, this is all a matter of property rights and the sanctity of contracts, and therefore it is quite fitting and proper for Clauer and his family to be kicked out of their home. But the conscience of every decent human being finds this revolting and, more to the point, feels that the rights of the Clauer family have been grossly violated. Surely, one of the roles of government is to protect citizens from being victimized by such exploitation.

Jefferson was, above all else, a man of the Enlightenment, who believed that human reason was the ultimate guide. This freed him from blind adherence to strict ideologies and gave him the ability to adjust his beliefs as to the best courses of action in light of actual circumstances. In this, 21st Century Jeffersonians follow their namesake. While libertarianism has many useful ideas that should be warmly embraced, following its theories to their ultimate conclusions would simply drive us off a cliff. For that matter, the same is true for modern liberalism and modern conservatism.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Legalizing Marijuana Is Basic Common Sense

Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. For 21st Century Jeffersonians, the arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana, but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.

The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. Federalism has also been an issue in the debate, with many questioning if the federal government has any right to regulate such matters, as there it is given no authority in the Constitution for doing so. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.

From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Jefferson reminds us that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this occurs.

That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.

The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been an utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement institutions. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which could easily be accomplished by decriminalizing marijuana, society would be much better off.

Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing to hurt anyone at all, are languishing in prison because they committed an act that is, when you get right down to it, no more serious than holding a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and demand that the laws be overturned.

Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We do easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.

For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars a year could be raised through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments.

It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.

To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana (which, in and of itself, harms no one) would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.

Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then establish a reasonable excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.