In a recent discussion about the war on drugs Charles Krauthammer, the most avidly conservative columnist in the nation's capital (and who writes for The Washington Post), defended the war by comparing the abuses associated with it – such as police raids on homes where no drugs are found – with abuses associated with raids aimed at car thieves when no stolen cars are found. But the comparison is utterly misconceived.
Chop shops, at which stolen cars are stored and reworked and then sold, are criminal operations because they are the fruits of grand theft auto! That is to say, the crime has clear cut victims whose property was stolen and when mistakes are made in the prosecution of such crimes they are not committed in the pursuit of innocent individuals. Sure, even when guilty parties are being pursued mistakes can occur but unless these are committed maliciously, they can be excused.
Pursuing drug offenders involves prosecuting people who have engaged in entirely victimless crimes. Sure, sometimes drug offenders are involved in criminal activities, but these have nothing to do with the sale or consumption of drugs. They have to do with breaking and entering, for example, so as to steal money or other valuables that can be used to purchase drugs. Those crimes, however, are independent of drug use itself. They are, instead, related to the prohibition of such use.
Drug use can be a very hazardous activity, just as gambling or mountain climbing can be. People sometimes become addicted to drugs as they can be to gambling or other hazardous activities. But in principle people can get addicted to nearly anything – in the famous movie The Days of Wine and Roses Jack Lemmon's and Lee Remick's characters become addicted to bon-bons before they turn into alcoholics. Such afflictions of people have nothing to do with victimizing anyone – they are what can be seen as self-regarding misconduct, like imprudent spending, overeating or other types of recklessness.
In free and civilized societies self-regarding misconduct may not be made into crimes. The most famous political philosopher associated with America's political tradition, the English political economist John Stuart Mill, insisted that only when someone engages in conduct that's harmful to other people can he or she be interfered with by the police. That is indeed the original meaning of liberalism – people are to be treated as free individuals unless they aggress on other people.
The fact that some drug users – and they are few and far between apart from those who try to evade the war on drugs in societies where there is official drug prohibition – misbehave under the influence of drugs is irrelevant. Anything can influence people's conduct and some such conduct can turn out to be aggressive. But it need not. And that is the difference between what must be made criminal and what must not be made criminal.
I will not even dwell on the obvious inconsistency of making drug abuse illegal while leaving alcohol and other types of abuse legal. It is, in point of fact, all part of the Nanny State mentality which, interestingly enough, the likes of Charles Krauthammer roundly condemn when it comes to welfare policies but seem not to mind when it comes to dealing with drug abusers who are adult human beings while they are treated like children or invalids.
Nor will I spend time on discussing the controversy over the very idea of drug addiction. There are others who have done a very fine job debunking the abuses perpetrated in the name of this idea – e.g., Thomas Szasz. I merely want to alert readers to the fact that the likes of Charles Krauthammer are just as willing to take over people's lives and rule it for them regarding their use of drugs as the likes of Keynesian economist Paul Krugman do when it comes to people's economic activities. Which confirms just how widespread the impulse is to rule other people, both from the Right and the Left. Neither shows much confidence in human beings – what is odd is that they do show confidence in the most dangerous human beings, governments, who hold guns in their hands.