I’m subscribed to receive a daily article from the rather radical Libertarians over at the Mises Institute. I don’t always agree with the folks at Mises–in fact, I often find quite a few of their views disagreeable. Nonetheless, their scholarship is impeccable, and their articles are always thought provoking and informative.
I was a touch surprised at the article I received yesterday. The basic premise was that the U.S. government’s War On Drugs is a woefully negative policy, impacting non-drug users in great and substantial ways. There’s nothing particularly new about that particular libertarian (both small ‘l’ and big ‘L’) argument. What was particularly interesting was that the argument took strikingly conservative lines. I think it would have a distinct appeal to more traditional, conservative thinkers, and as such, the article is of particular importance and relevance.
Author Gennady Stolyarov II begins:

I personally find all currently illegal drugs loathsome; they stunt the mind, inhibit the body, and curtail productivity. I would never consume such substances myself, and I would advise others against doing so.

A big mistake the Libertarian Party makes in its pro-legalization stance is a fail to make their opinion on drugs themselves clear. If Libertarians would occasionally make statements like the above, perhaps people wouldn’t so quickly dismiss Libertarians as a bunch of pot-smoking hippies. Next, Stolyarov’s thesis:

Yet, compared to the adverse effects of their illegalization, the harm of drugs themselves is small indeed.

A simple statement which can easily be understood by social, economic, and other conservatives. This is both a straightforward statement of value (cost of drug war > cost of harm from drug use), and it’s a statement which can be argued, evaluated, and verified in a straightforward, logically consistent manner.
In other words, it has the virtue of a scientific theory: it’s testable and falsifiable (as opposed to, oh, I dunno, say Intelligent Design “theory” which is neither).
And we’re not even through the first paragraph. It concludes:

Drug-taking is extremely unhealthy for the persons engaging in it, but not for anybody who abstains from it. The “War on Drugs,” by contrast, harms everybody subject to a government that undertakes it. I have no sympathy for drug addicts; I wish to argue the case of the innocent, moral, productive people who have never used such substances in their lives but are nonetheless harmed by the coercive illegalization of drugs.

Next, Stolyarov acknowledges that there are (arguably) moral problems with consumption of drugs. These moral problems, however, do not inflict a cost on society even remotely comparable with the cost imposed by the War On Drugs.

There are moral problems with drug-taking, but the ethical problems with the War on Drugs far exceed them. Let us presume that someone has decided to ruin his life by consuming harmful drugs. That decision alone would likely deny him the voluntary association of respectable people; these respectable people would thus not be damaged by any adverse consequences to the drug-taker’s health, career, and personality. By the very fact of strongly disapproving of drug-consumption on a moral basis, one shields oneself from the adverse consequences of drug-consumption. This would be the case on a free market; the only damage from drug-taking would come to the drug addict himself ? not to respectable others.

Stolyarov then goes on to make a lengthy, damning enumeration of the costs incurred because of the Drug War by moral, responsible, law-abiding members of society:

Yet this is not the case under a government-waged War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is waged with taxpayer money ? which especially means the money of respectable, well-to-do people, who are taxed higher under the perverse “progressive” or punitive tax system. Thus, to regulate and thwart the activities of the addicts, the government expropriates substantial property from moral, productive people who do not even think about consuming illegal drugs. To punish the self-destructive, the government must also punish the self-improving and deprive them of the fruits of and the incentives for their self-improvement.
The War on Drugs is generous to drug addicts and punitive to all others; the drug addicts are arrested at others’ expense and given “free” food and “free” lodging at government prisons ? free to the imprisoned, that is, but paid for by the taxpayers. Why should moral people pay to sustain others for those others’ immoral conduct? Why should the drug addicts be given state handouts and be spared the requirement to earn their own living on the free market? Prison conditions may be miserable, but they are granted to the drug addicts automatically ? as a taxpayer-funded gift for having broken a silly law. Why should drug addicts deserve even poor-quality food and shelter for ruining their lives?
The War on Drugs harms innocent schoolchildren, who are at risk of being suspended or expelled by draconian public school administrators for bringing in sugar, salt, aspirin, or other “drug look-alikes.”
In the inner cities, the War on Drugs harms anyone who does not engage in drug consumption; it subjects them to the tyranny of black-market drug gangs, which have by now usurped control of certain ghettoes. The government prohibits peaceful, overt trade in drugs, but it cannot legislate away demand for them. The demand persists, and some suppliers are still willing to satisfy it.
[…]
Thus is created the environment of competing, heavily armed drug gangs ? willing to murder to gain black market share. Such drug gangs are far more effective at seizing power than ordinary citizens; it should come as no surprise that the gangs should eventually begin to terrorize and extort even those not directly connected to the drug trade.
[…]
Most likely, the inner-city resident will not bother with the dangers of opening his own business or finding a productive job. Rather, he will be inclined to stay home, keep a low profile, receive his welfare check, and gradually disintegrate.
The War on Drugs restricts the mobility of virtually everybody, as the inner-city ghettoes are no longer safe for respectable, well-to-do people to even walk around in. The War on Drugs hurts everybody who has been robbed, mugged, or killed by the black-market gangs that the illegalization of drugs has created.

One of the strongest arguments traditional conservatives wield against the forces of libertarians–their justification for everything from opposition to gay marriage to legalized gambling to legal drug use–is that the damage to society’s culture has a negative effect on the whole society which in turn leads to increased crime, decreased economic growth, and the general decay of civilization. That particular point of view is a whole different debate for a whole different time, so I won’t get into it; rather, I point it out to show the relevance (and conservativeness) of Stolyarov’s next argument:

The War on Drugs fundamentally harms Americans culturally. By dividing the ghettoes into the drug gangs and the slothful welfare recipients who are too afraid to leave their homes, the government has inadvertently created the American ghetto culture: a culture of dissipation, vulgarity, insolence, indolence, foul language, deceit, promiscuity, brutality, and violence ? indeed, an anti-culture. This culture is eagerly romanticized and popularized by the leftist mass media and damages the morals of many who indiscriminately absorb it. The War on Drugs has been indirectly responsible for the widespread decline in tastes in music, art, clothing, and lifestyles during the past half-century.

Finally, Stolyarov concludes:

When compared to the expropriation of honest, productive citizens, the punishment of innocent children, the stifling of inner-city residents’ opportunities and aspirations, the massive increase in crime and black-market activity, the restriction of territorial mobility, and the corruption of culture, the harms of drug consumption are slight indeed. Let the drug addicts ruin their own lives; it is their business, not ours. We may object morally to their conduct, but let us persuade ? not coerce ? them away from their pursuits. If we try coercion, we will only be imposing far greater harms on ourselves.

In other words, drug legalization is not only moral from a libertarian standpoint (i.e. people should be free to engage in any activity which doesn’t infringe on the rights of others), but also drug legalization is the conservative, logical, and socially beneficial policy decision. Hopefully this message will gain more and more resonance among conservatives and some day we can see an end to the silly, pointless, counterproductive, financially destructive, and bureaucratically wasteful policy of drug prohibition.