Michael Gerson’s Drug Delusions

Commentary by Jack Hunter.
Most people can’t imagine an America without a minimum wage. Without such wage regulation many believe poverty would run rampant, families would become homeless and children would be starving in the streets. Yet conservatives have rightly recognized that these are moralistic and emotional responses to what is essentially an economic problem. Pointing out the policy’s failure, National Review founder William F. Buckley wrote: “The minimum wage is about as discredited as the Flat Earth Society…” Yet the very notion of getting rid of it remains something most Americans simply cannot fathom.

Most people can’t imagine an America without the War on Drugs. Without federal drug laws many believe substance abuse would be rampant, families would be destroyed and the nation’s youth would be strung out across our streets. Yet opponents of federal drug laws have rightly recognized that these are moralistic and emotional responses to what is essentially an economic, political, and due to our approach, criminal problem.

In 1995, National Review declared “The War on Drugs is Lost.” Leading this charge, Buckley broke down the troublesome cost of prohibition: “We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen—yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.”

Much like the minimum wage, virtually all data available on drug prohibition points to the utter ineffectiveness of our policies. The primary difference is that prohibition of drugs has been far more damaging to this country than prohibition of market determined base wage levels. Whether measured in dollars or lives—the War on Drugs continues to be a great and unnecessary tragedy.

It should not be surprising that those most comfortable with the damage caused by the War on Drugs have often belonged to administrations that have wrought the most damage on this country. Denouncing Congressman Ron Paul’s opposition to federal drug prohibition, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote this week in the Washington Post: “Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their ‘personal habits.” Added Gerson: “In determining who is a ‘major’ candidate for president, let’s begin here… It is difficult to be a first-tier candidate while holding second-rate values.”

Gerson was addressing the first Republican presidential debate last week, in which the moderators seemed intent on belittling Paul’s position on federal drug laws by using the most extreme example of heroin use, similar to how leftwing defenders of the minimum wage might invoke visions of homeless mothers and starving children. Paul’s simple yet controversial position is that drugs should be regulated at the state and local level as the Constitution demands, just like alcohol.

But Gerson’s review of Paul’s debate performance specifically focused on what the Bush speechwriter found to be a cold and dismissive libertarian attitude toward the very real problem of drug abuse. Gerson is not completely wrong in his criticism. Neither was Buckley, when he highlighted the larger question by addressing the same aspect of this issue as Gerson: “Those who suffer from the abuse of drugs have themselves to blame for it. This does not mean that society is absolved from active concern for their plight. It does mean that their plight is subordinate to the plight of those citizens who do not experiment with drugs but whose life, liberty, and property are substantially affected by the illegalization of the drugs sought after by the minority.”

Gerson believes Paul’s “second-rate values” on drugs makes him a “second-tier” candidate despite any polling data or fundraising achievements to the contrary. Gerson should know, as the speechwriter once worked for an electorally successful “first-tier” candidate. And for the next eight years, through his spending and big government agenda, the once top-tier George W. Bush would proceed to take the GOP brand to unprecedented lows.

If “Paulsville” is the place for supposedly second-tier ideas like drug legalization, “Bushville” was the land of consistent discredited status quo insanity—in domestic policy, foreign policy, drug policy—all served up and made rhetorically palatable to conservative audiences by speechwriters like Gerson. In his later years, Buckley would call the Iraq War a mistake, denounce Bush and support an end to the federal drug war—all parts of Paul’s unconventional Republican platform. Would a candidate Buckley today be considered “second-tier” for his views? Would supposedly first-tier candidates like Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum be preferable or somehow more genuinely conservative not only in their support for Bush and Obama’s policies but in their disagreements with Buckley on those same policies?

Buckley wrote: “The minimum wage is an accretion of the New Deal that is not defended by any serious economist.” The same is now true of the thoroughly discredited War on Drugs, a disastrous policy that given its evident failure should now belong to a distant era. That the more traditionally conservative yet unconventionally Republican Ron Paul now leads on this issue, is as symbolically appropriate as the fact that so many of his fellow Republicans still lazily and reflexively oppose him on it.

Or as the late William F. Buckley once described rightwing resistance on revisiting the War on Drugs: “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.”

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