Moral Wars

October 6, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, came out against the War on Drugs.
“You want to get serious? Reduce crime in this country by 70-percent overnight? End this war on drugs.”

The mayor calls the national drug policy an abject failure, especially crack cocaine sentencing.
The mayor’s comment was all the more surprising for coming in response to news that San Francisco’s murder rate is up sharply this year. Instead of saying the war on drugs is a failure, an American leader should be calling for a surge. At least that’s what we would expect.

Why do we find war such an attractive idea? The appeal of war and its metaphors seems to clash with the American pragmatism. We supposedly prefer looking for practical solutions to problems. Yet we also seem to gravitate naturally towards moralistic views of the world. If there’s something we don’t like, we prefer to think of it as an evil. The next logical step is to ban it and then to declare war on it. Prohibition wasn’t the first such effort, and it wasn’t the last. It’s just the only one that’s written into the Constitution. Later wars, on terror or on drugs, are written in legislation and in judicial decisions. And in our consciousness.

We are, of course, a peaceful nation; we never start a fight. We’re Gary Cooper in High Noon. We react to a threat from the bad guys. When that threat is so evil as to require a war, the obvious corollary is that if we don’t fight this war and achieve victory, our very existence will be undermined. That’s the logic behind the idea that if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them here. It’s the logic of moral absolutes rather than the logic of geography, politics, and strategy.

Framing something as war has some important consequences. First, even to question the usefulness or effectiveness of the war becomes tantamount to treason. There’s a war on drugs, and Mayor Newsom wasn’t supporting the troops. He was practically on the side of the enemy.

Second, since the enemy is evil incarnate and threatens our existence, and since we must defend ourselves against this aggression, anything we do is justified. If we’re fighting for our life, anything goes. The war on terror has given us a running tab of $10 billion a month, Abu Ghraib, Guantànamo, torture, and the Patriot Act. The war on drugs has had similar consequences (see “This is Your Bill of Rights on Drugs”). It has cost an enormous amount of money, giving rise to the incarceration-industrial complex, and it has needlessly and wastefully locked up tens of thousands of people. All with meager results.

It turns out there has been some progress in the war on drugs. In the past few months, cocaine prices are up and purity is down. The cause, however, is all on the supply side of the equation and the Mexican side of the border. The Mexican government is cracking down on the cartels, trying to win back cities controlled by the them. Perhaps more important, the cartels are in the midst of a serious war with one another for control of border crossings. Neither of those factors has anything to do with the long sentences we are still handing out to US buyers and sellers.

Other countries, at least their governments, prefer to approach drugs and terror as problems to be mitigated or even solved. Last month, in a lighter post on men’s room carelessness, I contrasted the Dutch solution (a trompe l’oeil fly in the urinal for guys to shoot at) with an imagined American approach – a War on Splashing with severe penalties for bad aim.

Punitive solutions are morally satisfying – I’d really like to stick it corporate polluters rather than let them trade emissions allowances; it’s just that non-moralistic approaches often work better and at less cost to our finances and our freedoms.

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