Bill Bennett's Blinders


By Jacob Sullum

Certainly he has given us cause for alarm. During his confirmation hearings last winter, he suggested that the war on drugs might require the suspension of constitutional rights and the use of the military for law enforcement. On a radio talk show last summer, he said beheading drug dealers would be "morally plausible." He has vowed to bring the drug war home to casual users by taking away their driver's licenses, seizing their cars, and throwing them in jail.

America's drug czar is deadly serious, and he is not going away. It seems we ought to get to know him better. So who is William Bennett, and why does he care if you smoke a little pot after a hard day at work?

The answer to the first question suggests why the second one is worth asking, for Bennett is not merely an authoritarian. As a philosophy student, he explicitly rejected unthinking obedience to the law. Indeed, one of his instructors at Harvard Law School recalls Bennett's views as basically libertarian. And although lately he has depicted people as powerless to resist the lure of drugs, as secretary of education Bennett emphasized the efficacy of the individual.

By all accounts, the former philosophy professor is a thoughtful, intelligent person. And, although he has presidential ambitions, he is not simply a political opportunist. Heseems genuinely to believe that drug use is both immoral and a serious threat to society.

Bennett refused to grant REASON an interview for this article, but his public remarks suggest that he objects to drugs-the illegal ones, that is-at a fundamental, philosophical level. In November 1987, when he was secretary of education, he told Douglas Ginsburg to withdraw from consideration for the Supreme Court after word got out that the nominee had smoked marijuana as a professor. Bennett didn't say, "Forget it-you've got no chance of being confirmed now," or, "Geez, haven't you embarrassed the president enough?" By his own account, he informed Ginsburg that smoking pot is "not right."

The attitude that drug use itself is bad, regardless of its consequences, pervades Bennett's first National Drug Control Strategy, released last fall. In the chapter on education, he says, "Young people and adults alike must be consistently confronted with the same message: drugs are wrong, they are harmful, and their use will bring certain consequences." He objects to educational programs that merely provide information about the effects of drugs, advocating "a firm moral stand that using drugs is wrong and should be resisted." Elsewhere, he calls drug use "a moral problem" and declares, "there is no such thing as innocent drug use."

This position is central to Bennett's vision of the war on drugs. "I remain an ardent defender of our nation's laws against illegal drug use and our nation's attempts to enforce them because I believe drug use is wrong," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last September, responding to Milton Friedman's call for legalization. "A true friend of freedom understands that government has a responsibility to craft and uphold laws that help educate citizens about right and wrong."

The idea that government should instill moral values and promote good character is shared by neoconservative guru Irving Kristol, an enthusiastic paternalist who has had an important influence on Bennett. "You can't have people walking around in a daze and still playing a part in the democratic process," Kristol says. "People on drugs are not capable of being rational."

He adds, "People don't trust themselves. In many ways, people want government to step in and help them discipline themselves….That's one of the proper roles of government." Gee, OK-but how do you decide when government has to step in? "You use your common sense and judgment."

This authoritarian tendency has been apparent, in some form or other, throughout Bennett's career. Yet there is much in his behavior, writings, and public statements that runs counter to it: his insistence on a rational basis for obedience to the law, his admiration of James Madison and Martin Luther King, Jr., his rejection of determinism, his emphasis on individual choice and responsibility, his suspicion of big government, and his condemnation of creeping theocracy.

In many ways, Bennett's career is a study in the tensions between his desire for freedom and his temptation to control, his opposition to the establishment and his feeling that he could do better if the reins were in his hands. Like the conservative movement to which he belongs, Bennett has both libertarian and authoritarian inclinations. And, like the movement, he has largely succumbed to the latter.

Bennett has never been a man who could be summed up in a phrase. Even at Williams College in the early 1960s, he confounded the stereotypes-though he certainly never would have been voted Most Likely to Become Drug Czar. On the one hand, he played on the football team, belonged to a fraternity, and attended his share of beer parties. (So far, no smoking joint has turned up.) According to the Wall Street Journal, he acquired the nickname "Ram" after smashing his head through a door to reach his girlfriend, who had locked him out of the room-presumably following an argument. (Perhaps we can look forward to seeing the beefy, 6-foot-2 drug czar use the same technique for raids on crack houses.)

On the other hand, Bennett was a philosophy major, wrote for literary magazines, and played electric guitar in a rock band called Plato and the Guardians. He opposed the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement, causes that brought him in close contact with Students for a Democratic Society. He considered joining SDS but decided not to after his brother, Robert, warned him that the move would come back to haunt him. When it was time to choose a graduate school, Bennett sought advice from William Sloane Coffin, the radical minister.

At the University of Texas, where he studied philosophy under John Silber, Bennett stayed away from groups such as SDS but retained his anti-Vietnam and pro-civil-rights convictions. Given his anti-establishment views, Bennett's doctoral dissertation on societal obligation is especially interesting. In that 1970 paper, which he completed while he was studying law at Harvard, Bennett argued that the requirements of law are justified by the goals of preserving the community and protecting its benefits. He used Socrates' submission to the judgment of Athens as an example of obeying an objectionable command for the sake of preserving order. Because Socrates had enjoyed the benefits provided by the community and had declined to leave Athens, Bennett argued, he incurred a societal obligation to lay down his life.

It is not clear how Bennett, who speaks of King's "A Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the same breath as the Declaration of Independence, would reconcile this notion of societal obligation with the duty to oppose unjust laws. His paper's discussion of resistance to the draft suggests that, in some circumstances, the community and its benefits might best be preserved through disobedience. So the obligation to obey the law can at least be outweighed, if not nullified, by other obligations.

Moreover, despite Bennett's current paternalism, his comments in class at Harvard were marked by an insistence that people have the capacity to make rational choices and must be held accountable for their actions. "My recollections of Bill as a student are that he was very much a libertarian," says Alan Dershowitz, who taught him first-year criminal law. "He certainly always took the view that people are masters of their own destinies."

But Bennett-in retrospect, at least-was already concerned about the effects of drugs. As a proctor in a freshman dormitory, "I was tough on drugs," Bennett boasted in a 1986 speech at the university. He later recalled that some students in the dorm he supervised "used to spend their days toking up and watching soap operas instead of taking advantage of freshman year at Harvard."

To Bennett, such behavior was a symbol of moral laxity and educational failure, themes he would later put to effective use as secretary of education. Bennett also saw drug dealers in Cambridge: He pushed the administration to suspend Harvard students who had sold amphetamines and barbituates to local junior high school kids. That experience would be echoed during his years at the Department of Education, when he toured inner-city high schools where drug use was common.

At Harvard, Bennett became increasingly disenchanted with the student left, repelled by its rabid anti-Americanism. John Agresto, a longtime friend who worked with Bennett at the National Endowment for the Humanities, says Bennett's repudiation of '60s radicalism was inevitable. "Although he had romantic left-wing notions, I don't think he had left-wing views," he says. "When he really started thinking about these matters [he recognized that] the left is really full of it." Twenty years later, Bennett still associates tolerance of drug use with the counterculture he rejected.

By the time he was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1982, Bennett had become well known within the neoconservative movement, writing for Commentary and other publications about the dangers of moral relativism and the need for ethical instruction. At NEH, he cut off the flow of public money to leftist projects and refused to set numerical goals for employing women and minorities-demonstrating that he was a man of principle who wasn't afraid to do things differently.

Indeed, much of Bennett's reputation for effectiveness, as well as the fear he inspires among opponents of the drug war, stems from his willingness to say exactly what he thinks and to take extreme positions, rather than to wax diplomatic. "He's absolutely the most candid person I know," Agresto enthuses. "Here's a person you know you can trust." He adds that, "despite a reputation for shooting from the hip, he really does think through everything he says."

Agresto describes an encounter between Bennett and Mary Futrell, then president of the National Education Association, shortly after Bennett was nominated to be secretary of education. She had come to make peace with Bennett, a critic of the education establishment, and start their relationship with a clean slate. "He said, 'No-you do things that are very wrong; no peace,' " Agresto recalls. "She was shocked."

But shocking opponents into submission works only when they are accustomed to the go-along-to-get-along ways of Washington. When Bennett runs up against opponents as principled and stubborn as he is, he gets frustrated. In response, he often resorts to the bullying tactics of his mentor Silber, a man whom the newsmagazines politely call "acerbic." Last fall, for example, Bennett labeled George Shultz's comments on legalization "really stupid" and testily suggested that the former secretary of state had deliberately obstructed the Reagan administration's drug eradication program. In December, when Robert W. Sweet called for legalization, Bennett said the federal district court judge had "an altered perception of reality." (Get it?) In other public statements, Bennett has called the mere discussion of legalization irresponsible, dangerous, and "morally scandalous."

He seems irritated by the persistence of legalization advocates. "At a time when national intolerance for drug use is rapidly increasing, the legalization argument is a political anachronism," he says wishfully in his response to Milton Friedman in the Journal. "Its recent resurgence is, I trust, only a temporary distraction from the genuine debate on national drug policy." Apparently, the genuine debate includes only people who agree with Bennett.

This petulant refusal to consider alternatives may stem from tensions in Bennett's own thought. Dershowitz suggests that Bennett's attitude toward drugs is inconsistent with his views on individual freedom and responsibility. "Everything Bennett stands for should lead him to at least flirt with decriminalization," he says. "He has deliberately put blinders on."

Yet shortly after taking the drug-policy job, Bennett called Dershowitz, whom he knew favored decriminalization, to ask for advice. "He said he wanted to hear the opinions of all the bright people he knows," says Dershowitz. "I think he was genuine in seeking the best ideas."

He draws some hope from Bennett's integrity and intellectual honesty, which seem to have been impaired by the drug war. Dershowitz imagines that Bennett is troubled by antidrug deceit, even as he practices it: "Sometimes, at 3 o'clock in the morning, he must have a dream that the god of reason comes down and tells him, 'Bill, you know decriminalization is the answer,' and he shouts, 'No, no!' He has to have that nightmare."

Whatever visions may haunt his dreams, Bennett is unlikely to change his policies. As secretary of education, he was far more willing to consider the ill effects of state intervention-yet his desire to use government schools to instill moral character prevailed over his recognition that public education is fundamentally flawed. Bennett frequently deplored the state of the public-school system, and he supported "instruments of choice," such as vouchers and tuition tax credits, recognizing that reform cannot succeed so long as public schools have a captive market. (More recently, he has suggested that if the education reform movement continues to fail, "maybe we should just declare bankruptcy, give the people back their money, and let them start their own schools.")

But as much as he criticized public education, Bennett saw it as a tool that, in the right hands, could be used to inculcate moral values. "Everything we know suggests that the vast majority of American children will, for the foreseeable future, go to public schools," he told Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum in 1985. "None of those children should be relegated to a desert of moral relativism while others attend private institutions where solid values are taught."

For Bennett, these solid values come from the "Judeo-Christian ethic," an amalgam that at times seems suspiciously close to secular humanism. In general, Bennett's Judeo-Christianity appears to be synonymous with the moral standards on which most Americans can agree-the Golden Rule, honesty, courage, discipline, etc. A graduate of the same Washington, D.C., Jesuit high school that Pat Buchanan attended, Bennett has called his own degree of religious observance "about average." And to his credit, he has denounced sectarians who would declare the United States a Christian country and teach the divinity of Christ in public schools.

But Bennett believes religion-in-general (whatever that may be) has an important place in public life, as an anchor for civilized behavior and the democratic process. "He is largely a Burkean," Kristol says, cherishing "inherited wisdom." As secretary of education, Bennett called for "voluntary" prayer in public schools and the use of Bible stories to illustrate traditional virtues.

"Bennett is a person who was formed by books," Agresto says. James Madison's writings had a particularly strong influence. As secretary of education, Bennett often referred to Madison in his speeches, and he later named his education-policy think tank after him. Tellingly, Bennett stresses Madison's comments on the need for a virtuous citizenry, rather than his warnings about the abuse of power and the dangers of mingling religion with government. He cites Madison to support his view of the state as a source of moral values.

That view permeates his drug strategy. In the strategy book, Bennett acknowledges the undeniable-that legalization would drastically reduce the kinds of crime and violence currently associated with drugs as well as save billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on law enforcement. But he predicts that lower prices and wider availability would increase drug use so much that the benefits would be swamped by lost productivity and increases in drug-related accidents and health problems. He also suggests that crime might actually rise overall despite sharply reduced prices, since there would be, in his view, so many more users.

In support of his projection, Bennett cites the dramatic increase in alcohol consumption following the repeal of Prohibition. But is there no important difference between the popular appeal of alcohol and that of crack? Is the law really the only thing stopping people from shooting up heroin? Can't people be expected to consider the dangers of using drugs before breaking out their pipes and hypodermic needles? Whatever his views in law school, Bennett now seems to have very little confidence in the individual's ability to make rational decisions.

"We readily admit that we're uncertain about the consequences of legalization, but we believe that drug use and abuse would increase rapidly," says Daniel Casse, a special assistant to Bennett. Casse complains that no one has yet presented a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the question. "Legalization as a policy issue is so steeped in uncertainty and risk that I don't think it would be seriously considered for a minute if it were any other issue."

Leaving aside the question of whether such an analysis could ever be performed to the satisfaction of the drug warriors, another question remains: Would it settle the matter? The answer is clearly no.

"I would never suggest that drug policy should be decided purely by cost-benefit analysis," Casse says, explaining there are "moral costs" to be considered. He doesn't mean the moral costs of prohibition-of accidental overdoses, of disease spread by dirty needles, of official corruption, of undermining respect for the law, of innocent bystanders and police officers gunned down in drug battles, of mayhem in Colombia or a wrecked economy in Peru, of invading privacy and restricting personal decisions, of taking away people's property and freedom because they dared to sell or ingest an unfashionable substance. No, he means the moral costs of using drugs. As Bennett put it last December, "There are certain things that are wrong, and you cannot countenance them, no matter what the cost." Once again: Drugs are wrong. No matter how much evidence and argument you muster in support of legalization, you will never have enough. The drug warriors cannot be convinced.

As secretary of education, Bennett preached against determinism and stressed individual responsibility. As drug czar, he emphasizes individual helplessness: People cannot be trusted to make decisions about drugs, because they often make the wrong decisions. And once they are hooked, they can only be freed at public expense, through government coercion-forced treatment and imprisonment.

Of course, Bennett does not do away with choice completely. He is confident that he would not run down to the comer grocery store to buy crack if it were available there. And no doubt he would make exceptions for many people who, like him, have been immunized by "Judeo-Christian values," or, alternately, "traditional American virtues." But sadly, in these days of moral relativism, we cannot assume people will have been taught the values that would enable them to resist temptation. Drug laws compensate for the public's lack of discipline while at the same time teaching the lesson that drugs are wrong.

Any explanation of how Bennett arrived at this article of faith must account for his distinction between legal and illegal drugs. Silber, who shares Bennett's disdain for advocates of legalization, is especially contemptuous of comparisons between controlled substances and tobacco or alcohol. He is not impressed, for example, by statistics showing that tobacco kills many more people than do all illegal drugs combined, or studies indicating that smokers become addicted far more frequently than do cocaine users and find it harder to quit. The important point, he says, is that smokers lead relatively normal, productive lives, while cocaine addicts are dramatically impaired.

Silber suggests this distinction is important for Bennett, who has a strong commitment to individual fulfillment. Illegal drug use interferes with the ability to be all that you can be, and the government can't allow that. "There's nothing at all wrong with the government of the United States being concerned with individual fulfillment," Silber says.

To bolster the idea that drug use inevitably cripples the user, Bennett misrepresents the facts. In his National Drug Control Strategy, he implies that recreational users are rare exceptions, that on the whole drugs simply cause misery. "Drug use takes a number of distinct forms," he says. "There are those who take a given drug just a few times-or only once-and, for whatever reason, never take it again. Others take drugs occasionally, but can and do stop….There may be a small number of people who use drugs regularly-even frequently-but whose lives nevertheless go on for the most part unimpeded. But there remain a large number of Americans whose involvement with drugs develops into a full-fledged addiction."

Based on Bennett's description, you would never guess that the vast majority of users fall into the first three groups; that is, they have no significant problems as a result of taking drugs. This is a fact that Bennett has difficulty accepting, because it belies his certainty that drugs are wrong. Consider Bennett's description of the recreational user: "He is likely to have a still-intact family, social, and work life. He is likely still to 'enjoy' his drug for the pleasures it offers." Notice the use of the word still, implying that casual use is just a plateau on the descent into addiction hell. Notice, too, the scare quotes around enjoy. Drug users, Bennett is saying, do not really enjoy themselves; they only think they do.

Ultimately, Bennett concludes, the fact that recreational users are not suffering makes them a threat, because others are therefore more likely to follow their example! With no evidence to support the assertion, Bennett then feels comfortable declaring that "non-addicted casual and regular use remains a grave issue of national concern."

Bennett's preoccupation with drugs does seem to have clouded his reasoning. During a visit to a Cleveland elementary school last fall, he was forced to deliver his antidrug speech outside after police evacuated the building because of a telephoned bomb threat. "It's a sad thing," Bennett declared in a curious non sequitur. "This is what drugs have done to this country."

There is, of course, a more alarming side to Bennett's obsession. He gave many people a start at his confirmation hearings last March, when he declared, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact….Lincoln did suspend habeus corpus rights, and I don't think that was a terrible thing to do." He added that it might be necessary to call on the military to help enforce drug laws. "This war is not for delicate sensibilities," he said. "This is tough stuff." In September, shortly after the release of his strategy book, he seemed to endorse the idea of shooting down planes suspected of carrying drugs into the country. Whoa, Bill-don't you think this war metaphor has gone a little too far?

Although not as extreme as many people feared, Bennett's first National Drug Control Strategy is chock full of scary ideas. Bennett prescribes "military-style boot camps," which operate in 11 states, for nonviolent drug offenders. He calls for measures to expedite eviction of "known" (but not necessarily convicted) drug dealers from public housing. He advocates coercive drug treatment on the grounds that "too many people who use drugs do not want to be treated." He praises warrantless searches of public housing tenants and their guests. This war is not for delicate sensibilities.

Bennett says casual drug users who are employed should face stiff fines and property forfeiture. He recommends publishing their names in newspapers, suspending their driver's licenses, notifying their employers, imprisoning them overnight or on weekends, and seizing the cars they use while buying drugs. Belying his view that drug use carries its own penalty, he wants to make sure that people suffer for ingesting immoral chemicals. This is tough stuff.

The former education secretary also seems to endorse the use of misinformation to scare kids away from drugs. He approvingly cites statistics showing that the percentage of high school seniors who saw a "great risk" in smoking marijuana more than doubled between 1978 and 1988. Apparently, it is good for people to believe lies. To further the propaganda effort, Bennett declares, the television and film industries "must do more."

Bennett urges private employers to require job applicants to undergo drug tests. He endorses IBM's highly intrusive drug policy, which requires some employees to submit to unscheduled tests. Seeking surrogate Big Brothers in the private sector neatly skirts Fourth Amendment issues.

Despite his grand plans and a generally favorable legal climate, Bennett's political situation is a bit awkward. Once again, he finds himself in an office that is primarily a bully pulpit. "He's not in charge of the war on drugs in any real sense," Kristol says. "There are many things he would like to do that other agencies" would not agree to.

For example, Bennett pushed for a new intelligence agency to coordinate information on drug trafficking, an idea that was shot down after objections from Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. Kristol adds that Bennett wants to make more use of the military than the Pentagon is likely to approve, and he wants strict penalties for recreational users, something Congress probably won't go for, since it would upset too many constituents.

Of course, members of Congress have been falling all over each other to fund the drug war, giving Bennett the $7.9 billion he requested and throwing in a billion or so more. Eighty-one senators were so dedicated to the cause that they voted last September to eliminate the mass mailing of congressional newsletters and use the savings ($45 million) for the drug war. But the goofiest funding idea so far, proposed by the House Republican Conference and endorsed by Bennett, is to sell $4 billion in Drug War Bonds. I can picture the commercials now: "Daddy, did you fight in the Drug War?" "No, son, but I invested in it."

Congress is acting according to the time-honored maxim, "When in doubt, appropriate." But what makes Bennett, the practical, clear-headed conservative, think that he can succeed where so many others, including 11 previous drug czars, have failed? Casse, Bennett's assistant, says his boss's approach is different in two major ways: It stresses coordination among the three dozen federal agencies involved in drug-law enforcement, and it recognizes that "demand-side" and "supply-side" tactics cannot be pursued in isolation.

If coordination is to be measured by the number of committees devoted to it, Bennett is well on his way. To the wide assortment of agencies waging the drug war, the National Drug Control Strategy adds coordinating bodies such as the Supply Reduction Working Group (SRWG), the Demand Reduction Working Group (DRWG), Joint Intelligence Collection Centers (JICCs), and the Drug Control Research and Development Committee (DCR&DC). So much for those nasty turf battles that have hampered the antidrug effort for so long.

One suspects that, in Bennett's mind, the crucial advantage of the current antidrug campaign is that now he is in charge. Bennett loves a challenge, the opportunity to defy expectations and display his skills. "He's very bright, and I think he thinks there's no job that's too hard for him to do," Dershowitz says. "He has the arrogance and self-confidence that's necessary for a job like this."

Bennett will need his ample self-esteem; his initial reviews have been harsh. In Washington, D.C., the test case for Bennett's plan to aid police in areas of "high-intensity drug trafficking," poor coordination and local opposition to prison construction have hampered federal efforts. Last October Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairperson of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, called the program "a colossal failure." In November, Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Bush administration's drug war has been "a lot of talk, a lot of hype, a lot of klieg lights, but very little product."

Then again, Bennett had a positive image when he left the Department of Education, but no one can say that the public schools are any better for his efforts. The results didn't matter, because everybody knows the secretary of education has little real power. The same is true of Bennett's current position.

"It doesn't matter if you solve the drug problem," Dershowitz says. "All you have to do is fight the good fight. I think [Bennett] will come off with a battle star with ribbons." Certainly his service as drug czar should solidify the 46-year-old former Democrat's position as a leading figure of the Republican right.

In 1988 Bennett told Time the only elective office he was interested in was the presidency. "He's thought seriously about running for office," Agresto says. "I think he'd make a superb, fantastic president." No doubt Bennett agrees.

Jacob Sullum is assistant editor of REASON.