11 May 2011

"Compassionate conservatism" and the war on drugs

Many more articulate than me, including Daniel Larison and E.D. Kain, have ripped apart Michael Gerson's mindless hit piece decrying Ron Paul's opposition to the war on drugs.

Gerson, of course, was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and now takes to the Washington Post's op-ed page to blast his particularly annoying brand of "compassionate" (read: big-government; see also, paternalistic) conservatism.

I won't rehash the myriad arguments against the war on drugs, most of which are extraordinarily compelling. Rather, Gerson's op-ed demonstrates precisely why the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush was destructive not just to the Republican Party, but to centuries-old conceptions of individual liberty.

Gerson's piece, straight out of the Terri Schiavo/stem cell/internet gambling moralist playbook, exemplifies what can properly be called the "conservative" position on drug prohibition. His argument essentially boils down to this: The government can ban cocaine, marijuana and even internet gambling, because those things are bad for you.

But what Gerson and his Bushian ilk miss entirely is that this is precisely the same logic that President Obama and liberal Democrats used to justify the individual mandate to purchase health insurance that was slammed through Congress last year. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute has noted, conservatives' idea of personal responsibility entails the individual making the decision about which health insurance plan to purchase (or whether to purchase insurance at all), and living with the consequences of those decisions. What is so offensive about Obamacare is that this idea of "personal responsibility" is turned completely on its head, wherein a government decree requires the citizen to engage in a certain activity, because that activity is good for him.

In the exact same way, Gerson and statist Republicans desire to regulate what Americans put into their bodies due to an offensive brand of paternalism, rooted in the deep-seated belief that the imperial state knows what's best for its citizens. This informed, among other things, the Bush administration's war on internet gambling. It is the same in every compelling respect to the Obama "personal responsibility" doctrine that says that government can, and should, mandate that individuals act a certain way, or engage in a certain activity.

Gerson's column -- in addition to being intellectually dishonest in the ways set out by Larison and Kain -- pushes an exhausted, offensive brand of moralistic statism that is antithetical to the tenets of liberty, and at which true conservatives should recoil.

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