Bryan Caplan  

The Conservative Dissenter

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Convincing conservatives to legalize drugs is an uphill battle for the Libertarian Missionary.  But how about for the Conservative Dissenter - the conservative who tries to convince other conservatives to abandon the drug war?  I'm thinking of the late William F. Buckley:
How many users of illegal drugs in fact die from the use of them? The answer is complicated in part because marijuana finds itself lumped together with cocaine and heroin, and nobody has ever been found dead from marijuana. The question of deaths from cocaine is complicated by the factor of impurity... When alcohol was illegal, the consumer could never know whether he had been given relatively harmless alcohol to drink -- such alcoholic beverages as we find today in the liquor store -- or whether the bootlegger had come up with paralyzing rotgut. By the same token, purchasers of illegal cocaine and heroin cannot know whether they are consuming a drug that would qualify for regulated consumption after clinical analysis.

...more people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing. These fatalities include, perhaps most prominently, drug merchants who compete for commercial territory, but include also people who are robbed and killed by those desperate for money to buy the drug to which they have become addicted.

He continues:
We have seen a substantial reduction in the use of tobacco over the last thirty years, and this is not because tobacco became illegal but because a sentient community began, in substantial numbers, to apprehend the high cost of tobacco to human health, even as, we can assume, a growing number of Americans desist from practicing unsafe sex and using polluted needles in this age of AIDS. If 80 million Americans can experiment with drugs and resist addiction using information publicly available, we can reasonably hope that approximately the same number would resist the temptation to purchase such drugs even if they were available at a federal drugstore at the mere cost of production.
How convincing was the Conservative Dissenter?  Here's entire editorial board of National Review back in 1996:
NATIONAL REVIEW has not, until now, opined formally on the subject. We do so at this point. To put off a declarative judgment would be morally and intellectually weak-kneed...

We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.

Conversion by Buckley is obviously not the only possible explanation for the editors' stance.  But it wouldn't surprise me.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
John Thacker writes:

I will note that that remains the editorial stance of National Review, reaffirmed in the last year, even with Buckley's passing.

Benjamin Cole writes:

The pot industry promises to broaden the tax base in California. I am a fan of consumption and Pigou taxes, so in addtion to my libertarian impulses, I find favor in drug taxes.

Anything to lower to Social Security tax on working people.

MGROOP writes:

Another good name to mention is Milton Friedman. He may not be in favor with a lot of Libertarians since he was a Chicago School economist, but he is the Republican Keynes. In his PBS series "Free to Choose", he advocated ending the War on Drugs.

For another argument entirely...

I am in favor of ending the War on Drugs, but from a totally different perspective. I actually think that drugs should be illegal, but I believe the current laws to be unconstitutional. I take the 18th amendment as my example. It took a constitutional amendment to pass prohibition. That means 2/3rds of Congress and 2/3rds of the States were in favor of it. Now in my mind the difference between alcohol and drugs is in magnitude. So I think the path to making it illegal should be the same. I see nowhere in the Constitution that would allow Congress to make drugs illegal by a legislative bill, but require that alcohol be made illegal through a Constitutional amendment.

A corollary to that argument would be that Congress can regulate or even forbid the importation of drugs, but not domestic production.

John V writes:


I'm not sure where you get that idea about Milton. Friedman was a libertarian. He was however a libertarian willing to use some of the status quo apparatus and means to get libertarian ends. IOW, a pragmatist in some ways.

The fact that some of what he stood for was appealing to conservatives is beside that point.

I say "some" because Friedman had many positions that were not appealing to conservatives...ending the drug war being but ONE of them.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

How about being a libertarian dissenter? And convince other libertarians that demanding legalized drugs makes libertarians seem like wild-eyed Christopher Lloyd crazy street people?

I say that while being half-way convinced that the "war on drugs" is an expensive and self-defeating waste of time. But there are so many things that conservatives and libertarians agree on that could be improved right now, it seems a shame to throw up such a reliable and avoidable road-block.

MGROOP writes:

John V,

I am not sure how we are in disagreement. We are talking about people who Republicans respect that would advocate ending the War on Drugs. Apparently Buckley was one such person. I merely pointed out that Friedman was another. Both men are respected by Conservatives. Friedman, Buckley, and Dennis Kucinich all agree on something that many Conservatives disagree with. However, Conservatives will respectfully listen to Buckley and Friedman. Conservatives will not listen to Kucinich.

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