The War on Drugs Is “The New Jim Crow”

Here is some reading to celebrate Martin Luther King Day:  Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  I confess up front I have not read the book.  I’ve just read some things about it.  Here is a short write-up from the author’s interview on NPR.

The book came to my attention as I was reading Leonard Pitts’s column in the newspaper this morning.  I read Pitts regularly, although not necessarily because I agree with him.  Rather, reading him helps me to see things from a point of view different from mine.

Blacks are hit harder by the War on Drugs at least partly because their drugs of choice are more likely to be illegal.  Tossing back a couple of shots of bourbon is an adult thing to do.  Smoking a joint is a crime.  I think the racial profiling argument has merit too.  Despite the title of Alexander’s book, many people aren’t colorblind, and that includes people in law enforcement.

The War on Drugs has been going on for three decades, so it should be obvious by now that it can’t be won.  So far, libertarian arguments against it have fallen flat.  The idea that individuals should have the freedom to make their own lifestyle choices hasn’t won the day in what we call “the land of the free.”  Freedom must mean the freedom to make what other people think are bad choices.  What kind of freedom is it that only allows you to make what those in government think are good choices?

It seems the freedom argument against the War on Drugs stands no chance when the government even wants to tell people they can’t eat food that bureaucrats have decided is not healthy.  If we can’t win the War on Food, how will we win the War on Drugs?

Politically, the argument that the War on Drugs is racist seems like more of a winner.  The libertarian in me likes the “individual freedom” argument better, but for those who really want to end the War on Drugs, the “racist” argument has more political clout.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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