One of the great ironies of postmodern times is that the regulatory powers of the state have expanded over society while receding from the economy. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the drug war, an experiment in social engineering that has discouraged drug use in America about as effectively as state ownership of the means of production once encouraged prosperity in the Soviet Union.
Both Gray, a progressive, and Eldredge, a conservative Republican, lament the unintended consequences of this policy: the financial underwriting of criminal organizations, the profound subversion of democratic institutions in Latin America, the corruption of police and judges, the loss of legal protections once treasured in Anglo-American jurisprudence, the alienation of substantial segments of an otherwise law-abiding population, and the stuffing of court and prison systems with a million arrests for drug offenses a year. Yet despite this enormous effort, which assaults basic principles of civil liberty, the object has not been attained: teenagers have more difficulty finding beer than most illicit drugs.
Eldredge proposes a sensible alternative that would place the sale of now-illegal drugs in state-run stores, taxed at a level that would deprive the gangs of revenue while affording ample funds for treatment and prevention of drug abuse. The nation, regrettably, seems averse to any such experiment. America, whose providential mission in the twentieth century was to defeat totalitarianism abroad, appears determined to employ its vast panoply of state power to stamp out private vice at home. Forgotten is the older wisdom that in a free land, the cultivation of virtue should be left to the institutions of civil society. Forgotten, too, is the older understanding that civil society has its victories, no less renowned than those of the state.