As an introduction, I’ll just say that this stuff runs heavily in the family. And it’s a family time of year. Regardless of all things “legal”, when a family is close, it takes more than a cold hearted prosecuting attorney to break the ties that bind.
So, I want to share a couple things that were written by my favorite daughter-by-marriage, Stephanie, who lives on the family farm in New York State and is also currently working on her bachelors degree….
And so without further ado:
“All men recognize the right of revolution,” says Henry David Thoreau (1794). The term “revolution” refers to a radical change, whether in the principles of the individual, or those of society at large. Modern Americans tend to cringe at the phrase, as it has irrevocably become linked with war, and yet its home lies within the American mind, the microcosm from which the macrocosm of government exists. In a perfect democracy, “the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived” (1807). This is the democratic ideal, the application of which is the intentions of the American government. There is an abyss between the capacity for true democracy, and the actualization of true democracy. Democracy, therefore, is a work in progress, and the labor an American calling. This process of democratization has embedded itself in American culture, and it involves constant changes in the mind and character of the American individual, American society, and even the American government. American identity is defined by the struggle between individualism and civil responsibility, creating a sense of duty toward revolution.
Who is the American? John Hector suggests the emergence of individualistic culture in his “Letters from an American Farmer: What is an American”. “They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen” (659). “In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together, and in consequence of various causes; to what purpose should they ask one another what countrymen they are? Alas, two thirds of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury, can that man call England or any other kingdom his country?”(659). Americans were born from the cracks of colonial societies; they are the people who found in their country nothing of themselves, and were seen as only a means for the privileged. “Urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Everything has tended to regenerate them; new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mold and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war; but now by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (659). Many emigrating American’s simply wanted to pursue their lives free of the yoke of other men, to pursue their individual contentment. “Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor; his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest,” (660). In order to pursue individualistic happiness, one must operate under a government that allows for that kind of freedom.
Emigration from Europe to the Americas due to the dissatisfaction with colonial governments represents a kind of revolution in itself, and has formed an entirely new society. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” (660). American colonial culture desired to get away the this notion of men being used as means for other men to obtain more pleasurable lifestyles; Americans wanted man to be seen as an end, in and of himself. Hence the American government should accommodate this sense of the individual rights of a man, although at the time of Hector, and even Thoreau, this pertained to white men who owned land and were eighteen, neglecting the rights of other human beings, a point which Thoreau found anti-American. America needed a mode of government that could give the individual a voice, and that government was democracy.
In order to have an effective democracy, individuals must participate in the government, meaning they must vote. Americans post-Revolution had a strong sense of civic duty, for they understood that their voice could be heard in a democratic government, in the form of a representative which they could elect to serve their interests. Henry David Thoreau was one for using his civic responsibility to pressure the American government to address this issue of the individual rights of man.
The issue, for Thoreau, was that these rights of man in American government neglected many Americans, including African- Americans, much like colonial governments neglected those born to underprivilege. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (1793). This drove him to reiterate that very purpose of government, “which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will,” (1792). John Hector also addresses American government in the same manner. “[The government] is derived from the original genius and strong desire of the people ratified and confirmed by the crown” (659). To support this definition, “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way” (1793). Thoreau makes an important insight into the nature of representative government, that it may act to represent the voice of its people, but that the voice heard is of the majority. This is where he calls upon Americans to exercise their right, their duty, of civic responsibility. “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose” (1799).
Henry David Thoreau champions the American to use his civic power to end slavery, which he sees as incongruent with the foundation of American ideals. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also” (1794). He is sickened by the fear Americans have to stand against slavery, even if they feel it is wrong. “Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform” (1797). This is because Thoreau feels that the individual is ultimately the one who holds the power of change, the power of revolution in democratic government, and that using this power is an American duty, the way in which the government can be kept in check, can be assessed in terms of its justice. “Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disreguard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves—the union between themselves and the State,–and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do they not stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented that State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?” (1797). “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why does it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?” (1797).
A powerful image of Thoreau’s beliefs about what an ideal democratic government has begun to emerge. The individual would be the central axis of authority from which the government would operate. “Is democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor” (1807).
The War on Drugs
The phrase “the War on Drugs” is amusing; drugs are commonly used by people in everyday life, both legally and illegally, and have been throughout human history. It is not really amusing, however, because due to our drug laws, the United States, the country with some of the strictest drug laws in the world, has the highest incarceration rate in the world as well. To anyone who really cares to think about this issue, it would seem that there is a clear violation of civil liberties going on within this country pertaining to drug use, and a hypocritical one, in my opinion, at that.
Over thirty-five years ago the drug laws went into effect, and as a result, the incarceration rate has steadily increased, and so has government spending on “the War on Drugs,” reaching $11.4 billion in 2003, and that is not counting how much gets spent at a state level (Rachels 248). The Prohibition argument goes as follows:
Drug use may cause harm to users [and others].
The government has a right or duty to prohibit that which is [potentially] harmful.
The government has a right or duty to prohibit drugs.
Before we begin discussing this argument in free form we will apply it to the Two Principles of Rationality, a methodology used in ethics to show an argument’s soundness, by judging both its truth and validity. The first principle states that “every proposition which is implied by a true proposition is true.” The second principle says that “every proposition which implies a false proposition is false.” Premise one of the Argument for Prohibition says that “drug use may cause harm to users, and others,” and we can judge this as a true statement—drug use “may” cause us harm, or they “may-not”. The problem comes with the second premise which states that “the government has a right or duty to prohibit that which is [potentially] harmful,” and the conclusion that follows, “the government has a right or duty to prohibit drugs.” First of all, it does not seem that the government, especially given a Constitution based upon the individual right to autonomy of man, has a right to prohibit things that are potentially harmful, because if it did there would be all sorts of consequences that would not apply to the way things actually are; this would mean that anything potentially harmful would be under government jurisdiction. Say for example I eat too much, and because I eat too much, I am obese, and this puts my life in danger; eating has become potentially harmful, and should be prohibited by the government! Or, for example, I have too much sex, and having so much sex increases the chances of my partner and me becoming pregnant, which would be potentially harmful to our lives; we would have to quit school, raise children, or maybe I could die in childbirth, therefore, the government should prohibit sex.
As we can see, there are all sorts of weird consequences to this logic. The government cannot tell me how much I can eat, or how much sex I can have. It would make sense, therefore, that the government cannot prohibit things based upon some “potential” harm. According to the second principle of rationality, “every proposition which implies a false proposition is false,” this Argument for Prohibition is false. The second proposition, which implies the conclusion, is false; therefore, the conclusion itself is false.
There is another argument, the Anti-Prohibition Argument, to counter the Prohibition Argument. It contains logic that is much more reminiscent of the rights granted to the individual by the Constitution of the United States, and goes as follows:
The government has an obligation to avoid restricting the autonomy of its citizens, unless there is an overriding reason.
Drug use [for the most part] is a harmless expression of autonomy.
The government has an obligation to avoid restricting drug use.
Although the first premise of this argument is awesome, and constitutionally correct, one can see that those arguing for prohibition would attack the phrase “harmless” in the second premise. Is drug use harmless? Prohibitionists would say it is not harmless—that drug use is harmful. In my opinion this comes down to the integrity of the individual. Drugs get used legally every day, all day long; I know at least a handful of people walking around with prescriptions for oxycotin, which might be the most heroine-like drug legally on the market. This has caused a whole underground drug economy with this drug alone; more and more people are becoming aware of its use, or are using, or have used it. Whose fault is that? I blame doctors who put it on the market; I blame capitalism and poverty, and drug laws, for its value; I do not blame people, and I do not think that people deserve to sit in prisons with rapists and murderers for getting caught using or having the drug, or any drug for that matter. The only way that drug use should be prohibited is based upon that fact that is may be harmful to others, and this is only under certain conditions, such as driving, or drug-trafficking. Drug-trafficking would not occur if drugs were legal; they would lose their value, therefore it is the prohibition of drugs that cause the harm drug-trafficking causes.
Drug-trafficking is a result of the value of drugs.
The value of drugs is a result of their prohibition [risk].
Drug-trafficking is a result of drug prohibition.
There are so many examples of people being punished, unjustly, in this “War on Drugs” that it touches almost everyone’s life here in the United States. I know a woman who is a moderate marijuana smoker, meaning she smokes at the end of her day, when all her responsibilities are taken care of, because she has documented back pain, and it helps her sleep. This woman forgot that she had a metal bat-a device for smoking marijuana, in her purse, and unfortunately walked into a federal building with metal detectors, and got caught, not know what the issue was until she was reminded of the bat, which contained an amount of marijuana about the size of the tip of my pinky. She was humiliated by the staff, taken off for questioning where she was scolded for being a “user”, especially given that her twenty-year old son was with her. In turn, her twenty-year old son was questioned as to whether or not he was a “user” too, and he is not. When asked if he smoked pot he replied, “No. Do you?” Needless to say they let the woman and her son go with a ticket, which was dropped because of the recent decriminalization of marijuana in N.Y. State—a fact which the officers who issued the ticket seemed to be unaware of; the judge was literally appalled that the case even got to him. How is this justifiable?
Perhaps these issues should be more important to people; people seem to just roll over and let the government do as it wills, when the opposite action would be more inherent to the founding characteristics of our nation. Henry David Thoreau believed that a good government would respect the right of the authority of the individual, even look to the individual to judge its own actions. He also believed that when the government did something an individual considered unjust, the individual should reserve the right to dissolve the union, namely the union between the individual and the State. These are some of the ideologies present in the American Constitution, which is based upon democratic government; the right to autonomy. Maybe we could just stop paying taxes, and funding the “War on Drugs,” in fact, maybe we should have the right to do so, first, without the consequences, such as losing your property, involved. For a country that claims to be a pillar of human rights, a center for the right to autonomy through its very foundation, our government seems to like to concern itself more and more with issues that it should not have any say in; it seems to strive to violate our right to autonomy. I guess my final question to this would be, how much money does the government, or the people making money off the actions of the government—those who exert control, make by incarcerating individuals? How much money could it lose by allowing the individual to refuse to support actions they view as inherently wrong and unconstitutional? The measure of American society’s morality seems to be capital.