In Part 1 of this six-part series, I discussed the importance of comparing terms and assumptions before debating drug policy. In this post, I re-examine the nature of law and our disturbingly casual attitude towards coercion and punishment.

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Every law diminishes our freedom, but good laws provide new freedoms in exchange.

The primary function of any government is to protect its constituents’ human rights. The secondary goal is to uphold the smooth functioning of society. Secondary functions include zoning laws, market regulations, welfare programs, and tax collection—these activities don’t protect individual rights per se, but they (arguably) keep society running smoothly without excessively infringing upon our rights.

Not everyone will agree with my definition of government’s functions, or the way I have ordered them, but that’s okay – the whole point of outlining our fundamental beliefs is to identify where exactly we diverge in opinion, and why. In my operating definition, protecting human rights is the prime function of government.

Every law diminishes our freedom, but good laws provide new freedoms in exchange. For example, without murder laws we would all enjoy the privilege of committing homicide with impunity. (Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t dreamed about throttling your rude boss or overbearing mother-in-law and getting away with it.) But we would also be less free in such a world, because our lives could be snuffed out at any moment. By prohibiting murder, we lose one freedom—the right to kill—but gain another—the right not to be killed.

All laws are just veiled threats of violence.

The problem is that we tend to idolize the law, dressing it up in language that obscures its true nature. We talk about the “rule of law” like it is something more than the threat of violence against people who commit socially undesirable acts. We forget that every law is an exchange of one liberty for another, and instead we characterize them as forces which govern human behavior, as if by magic.

This is very dangerous. We must remember that laws do not compel, they coerce. But see how our language hides this fact:  “The President signed a bill into law today,” “Congress is considering a new education reform bill,” “The DEA has categorized psilocybin mushrooms as Schedule I.” These are all fancy, abstract ways to say that bureaucrats have decided to punish certain behaviors. The punishments range from theft (fines) and kidnapping (imprisonment) to more indirect forms of disenfranchisement, like losing one’s job, becoming ineligible for student loans and federal housing, and being blacklisted from future employment because of a criminal record. In some barbaric districts, the state can even murder you, although we prefer to call it execution—or more euphemistically, “capital punishment.” In any other context, these punishments would be considered crimes of their own.

All laws are just veiled threats of violence. What happens if you’re the teacher who bucks the new education law, or the individual caught with a baggie of mushrooms? You lose your job, your money, your liberty, or your reputation (and sometimes all at once). Because these punishments are sanctioned by the state, we don’t call them career sabotage, larceny, or kidnapping. But when you strip away the pretty language, that’s what you have: state-sponsored crimes as retribution for state-prohibited crimes.

We must regard legislation and law enforcement with absolute gravity, because on the other end of every life-wrecking sentence is a human being.

Perhaps I sound like an anarchist, about to launch into an impassioned argument against the tyranny of all forms of government. Not at all. Criminal punishments, while regrettable, are entirely justified in many cases. Behaviors that violate human rights and property rights, like homicide and burglary, must be punished. Some state-sponsored human rights violations are necessary in any civilized society.

When it comes to criminal punishment, we have to remember what’s at stake. We must regard legislation and law enforcement with absolute gravity, because on the other end of every life-wrecking sentence is a human being.

We must acknowledge that legislation and law enforcement are by definition coercive, aggressive acts. This is supposed to be a republic, not a dictatorship of the majority. We must take the power of law seriously and show great restraint in exercising it, lest we become our own tyrants.

handcuffsAnd we don’t take it seriously or show restraint, not at all. Congress, the DEA, and the public rarely consider the human beings whose lives are destroyed in the name of “justice.” If we did, this toxic War on Some Drug Users would not be raging on after forty years of failure. We would not tolerate the inhumane system of “minimum sentencing” which takes all discretion away from judges and places it in the hands of Congressmen – people who never even meet the offenders they condemn. And we would not perpetuate old Jim Crow laws under a new banner of “tough on drugs,” creating a despised underclass of mostly poor minorities through systematic discrimination.

The bar is set too low. We are much too eager to denounce, rob, and imprison people who have not committed any act of aggression. Our government’s pathological abuse of power rivals that of kings and dictators in all eras. Except this time, we are all guilty.

 

Continue to Part 3—The Power of Words.

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