My budget solution: end the wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs)

by Rob Tiller

Yesterday the newspapers reported that the last U.S. soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of this year. When the U.S. invaded Iraq eight years ago, I thought it was a terrible mistake, and everything I’ve learned about it since has strengthened that conviction, as thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, and as we increased our exposure to financial collapse by spending more than 800 billion borrowed dollars.

It’s good news that it’s over, and I wish I could feel happier about it. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc in Iraq, and now we’re stopping. Have we learned anything? That’s doubtful. As a society, we’ve hardly thought about it at all.

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had a concentration in political theory. I read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adams, Marx, Nietzche, Bentham, Mill, Arendt, Rawls, and a lot of other interesting and challenging thinkers. For a long time, though, I had my doubts as to whether I’d learned anything at all useful.

Eventually, I came to the view that I learned one very useful thing: critical thinking. Engaging with lots of powerful ideas that were all, at least to some degree, wrong or unworkable helped develop a mental toolbox. This toolbox is useful in recognizing the weak points in arguments, discarding unfounded assumptions, and sometimes in making better decisions.

War is powerfully attractive at certain times and places. I am not immune to that attraction. Like lots of kids, I’m fascinated by weaponry (especially tanks and fighter jets), and I find military history interesting. But something in my moral education left me with the settled view that killing sentient beings is deeply tragic, and in most cases morally wrong.

Add this ethical orientation to a skeptical turn of mind, and maybe I can see through the attractions of war to the underlying horror more easily than most. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. In any case, I have a high degree of confidence on the right way to go on this. While we’re wrapping things up in Iraq, let’s also quit sending our kids to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. There is no good reason for that war, either. We’ve spent more than $450 billion on it. Let’s stop the physical and financial bleeding.

Ditto on the war on drugs. This week’s (Oct. 17) New Yorker has a piece on the subject by Michael Specter. (Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs are available without charge online.) It starts with a discussion of Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drugs ten years ago and treating addiction as a medical problem. “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

Specter gives a balanced account of Portugal’s experience, and including quotes from critics of the change. Their criticisms seem mostly based on their belief that drugs are evil. Fine. But in Portugal lots of law enforcement and political leaders have given up on the idea that treating drug use as a crime can possibly succeed.

There was another good anti-drug-war piece this week by Doug Bandow, a fellow at the conservative a Cato Institute published in Forbes and republished by the Huffington Post.
According to Bandow,

Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial. Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments. At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”

This cost is appalling, and it doesn’t even count such costs as ever expanding prison systems, corruption of law enforcement and government, breeding organized crime, and of course the human costs of broken families and lives.

But I see a little ray of hope. The national debt problem has come to be viewed as both serious and impossible to solve. However true that may be, it has created a sense of desperation in Washington. It’s just possible that drug war diehards could come to accept drug legalization as a necessary revenue-generating measure. This was part of what led to the repeal of Prohibition — the realists won the argument that we needed the tax revenues from liquor. Legalization, combined with a sensible regulation and taxation system, could make a significant dint in our budget shortfalls. Add that to ending unnecessary wars, controlling excessive military costs, cutting farm subsidies, getting health care costs under control, and voila!