Nanny State

When Does X Trump Liberty? When X Is Fear of Marijuana.

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Yesterday This Week, ABC's Sunday news talk show, sponsored a debate about big government. On the pro side: Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. On the other pro side: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and syndicated columnist George Will (a regular panelist on This Week). Since this was a debate between Democrats and Republicans, there was no anti-statist side, although Frank did a pretty good job of chiding conservatives for their inconsistency in that regard:

I would assume, George, you're going to sign on with me and Ron Paul in removing the criminal penalties on the use of marijuana and on stopping this terrible regulation of the Internet in which we tell adults that they can't gamble.

And frankly, here is where the right wing is very much for big government. They are the ones who want to regulate personal choices. Birth control…gambling, private sexual practices. Who can get married. I have never understood why heterosexuals who want to get married believe that if I were to marry a man, they would somehow lose interest in their wives….

[That's] also the case, of course, with the military…A major reason for the expansion in American government, taxation, et cetera, is an overly extended American military, which is committed all over the world to accomplish all kinds of social and economic purposes far beyond defense.

Will, to his credit, backed the legalization of online gambling, but he expressed reservations about marijuana decriminalization, saying, "I need to know more about whether it's a gateway to other drugs. I need to know how you're going to regulate it, whether you're going to advertise it." Frank rightly deemed this response a "cop-out," especially because Will had just answered a question about traffic light cameras this way:

When does X trump personal liberty? Almost never….I don't want to make safety parallel with, equal to, let alone trump personal liberty. 

That was in reference to a policy ostensibly aimed at protecting third parties. Yet Will seems ready to accept marijuana prohibition as a way of protecting people from themselves—and not even from harm caused by marijuana itself but from harm caused by the drugs they might use after trying marijuana.

Ryan likewise confirmed that conservatives have a blind spot about big government when it comes to the military:

Ryan: I noticed, Barney, you have a big thing with the national defense, with the Defense Department. That's the primary function of the federal government. You may not like what they do.

Frank: But to build bridges in Afghanistan—where in the Constitution is that?

Ryan: This time last week, this time last week I was in Helmand Province with our Marines in Afghanistan. They're out there fighting for our liberties and our security, depriving safe havens for terrorists who can come and attack again. You might not like that. You might have a problem with that.

Frank: They go far beyond it. 

The fact that national defense is a "primary function of the federal government" does not mean everything done under that heading is justified. Self-identified fiscal conservatives like Ryan should be at least as skeptical of government programs that deliver bombs and bridges in other countries as they are of programs that deliver subsidies and social services here. 

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]