The War on Poverty and the War on DrugsRandall Holcombe
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As an apparently war-minded people, Americans (or at least, our American political leaders) have been comfortable framing parts of the domestic policy agenda as wars for decades. Two of the most prominent have been the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs.
Despite the similarity in their names, there is an important difference between the two. The War on Poverty is not a real war. The War on Drugs is.
The War on Poverty is not a real war because there is no enemy that we are attacking to fight poverty. Quite the opposite. The War on Poverty identifies poor people and them gives them stuff. Sometimes it is income. Other times it is food, or health care, or education.
If some analogy to war is made, the War on Poverty is more like the Marshall Plan that provided aid to the victims of war regardless of any fault in causing the war. If people are victims of poverty, the War on Poverty gives them stuff, perhaps with the idea that the stuff can help them escape poverty.
The official poverty rate in the United States has not fallen since the late 1960s, so if the idea of the War on Poverty was to reduce poverty, then according to the government’s own statistics, it hasn’t worked. But that’s a different issue. The point here is that the War on Poverty is not actually a war.
The War on Drugs is a real war. It’s name obscures the people who are the combatants. It is actually a war on the buyers and sellers of drugs. The police are arming themselves with military-style weapons and using military tactics to attack the enemy—drug buyers and sellers—and the members of the declared enemy are also taking up arms to defend themselves and their property, partly against the police, but also partly against other citizens. Obviously, the police will not protect the people with whom they are at war, or their property.
Indeed, with civil forfeiture laws, the police will not only seize the property they have declared war against, but all property associated with those they treat as enemy combatants.
For the most part, laws in the United States are written and enforced to protect minorities of any type, whether defined by race, gender, age, sexual preferences, or religion, but the one big exception to protection of minorities is that the War on Drugs has singled out people for persecution based on substances they choose to buy and sell.
Not too long ago, the legal system went after people who engaged in homosexual activity, or interracial marriage, but we’ve moved beyond that and the laws now protect people’s choices they make in their private lives, even if many people don’t approve. (One exception is same-sex marriage, that is still subject to debate.) Freedom is meaningless if people are only granted the freedom to make choices that political leaders approve.
Despite progress in some areas protecting minorities, the War on Drugs is a glaring exception. I’m not talking about the fact that racial minorities are more likely to be targeted in the War on Drugs (although that is true). The minority I refer to is drug buyers and sellers, regardless of their other characteristics. Why do we persecute that minority as we extend legal protections to so many others?
The government is not content to merely attack actual drug buyers and sellers: it sets up stings to lure people into agreeing to drug transactions even when it has no other evidence against them.
A USA Today article describing these sting operations says, “The ATF’s stash-house investigations already face a legal backlash. Two federal judges in California ruled this year that agents violated the Constitution by setting people up for ‘fictitous crime’ they would not otherwise commit; a federal appeals court in Chicago is weighing whether an operation there amounted to entrapment.”
How are people targeted for sting operations? The article goes on to say, “In one case in San Diego, a government informant… testified that he sometimes approached people on the street to see if they wanted to commit a drug robbery. … In another case, a federal appeals court judge said the ATF dispatched an informant to randomly recruit bad guys in a bad part of town.”
“There’s something very wrong going on here,” said University of Chicago law professor Alison Siegler, part of a team of lawyers challenging the ATF’s tactics in an Illinois federal court. “The government is creating these crimes and then choosing who it’s going to target.”
Justifying its actions, in the same article the ATF says “…its agents rely on criminal records, police intelligence files and confidential information to identify people already responsible for violent robberies.”
Notwithstanding the contradictions in the preceding paragraphs, one reason people who are targeted in the War on Drugs have criminal records is that the government has declared war on them. Further, if they are really targeting people responsible for violent robberies, they should arrest them for robbery rather than try to entrap them in a drug sting operation.
The War on Drugs is a real war in which the government has singled out a minority population—drug buyers and sellers—for attack. It comes after them with military-style weapons and tactics so it can confiscate their property and incarcerate them.
The War on Poverty is not a war. It is a peace-keeping operation that provides goods, services, and money to the poor, much like the Marshall Plan did in Europe after World War II.
In neither case are these programs accomplishing their stated goals. The poverty rate is not declining, and people continue to buy and sell drugs. But then, you knew that before you started reading this.