“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”

Strong words from the late Milton Friedman to Bill Bennett:

You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are tearing asunder our social fabric, ruining the lives of many young people, and imposing heavy costs on some of the most disadvantaged among us. You are not mistaken in believing that the majority of the public share your concerns. In short, you are not mistaken in the end you seek to achieve.

Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore…

Alcohol and tobacco cause many more deaths in users than do drugs. Decriminalization would not prevent us from treating drugs as we now treat alcohol and tobacco: prohibiting sales of drugs to minors, outlawing the advertising of drugs and similar measures. Such measures could be enforced, while outright prohibition cannot be. Moreover, if even a small fraction of the money we now spend on trying to enforce drug prohibition were devoted to treatment and rehabilitation, in an atmosphere of compassion not punishment, the reduction in drug usage and in the harm done to the users could be dramatic.

This plea comes from the bottom of my heart. Every friend of freedom, and I know you are one, must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.

Friedman, who died today, was influential among libertarian conservatives in opposing the war on drugs. I find some of his arguments naive, for example, the idea that addicts wouldn’t have invented crack in a decriminalized environment. This line of argument suggests that opium eaters wouldn’t have devised unintended uses for the syringe. I also question his dysphoric vision of jails full of casual drug users.

In spite of my disagreements (on this and a lot of other matters), his letter to Bill Bennett is full of conviction and compassion and demonstrates that reasonable people can disagree. While I doubt his vision of casual drug users in jails, what we have is every bit as troubling–jails and prisons full of sick people suffering from untreated addiction. You also can’t have 4 digit increases in incarceration for drug crimes without first intensely stigmatizing the target population. He was also correct that the war on drugs has been a disaster and it’s past time for serious discussion about alternatives. I have serious concerns about decriminalization, but there’s precious little discussion about alternatives to the war on drugs and decriminalization.

2 thoughts on ““I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”

  1. The quotation attributed to Milton Friedman is actually from a letter by Oliver Cromwell to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 3rd August 1650

  2. Thanks. Yes. If you click on the link, Friedman attributes the quote to Cromwell. Perhaps I should have also.

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