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Saturday, August 17, 2019
HomeOpinionA Libertarian Quandary on Pot, Federalism, and the Rule of Law

A Libertarian Quandary on Pot, Federalism, and the Rule of Law

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

Here are two statements that seem in conflict.

But there’s actually no conflict because we can decide that some things are distasteful without wanting to infringe on the freedom of others to partake. And you can make that decision for moral reasons or utilitarian reasons.

Now let’s consider two more statements.

  • The rule of law is a bulwark of a civilized society and government officials should not engage in arbitrary enforcement.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions is wrong to enforce federal drug laws in states that have decriminalized marijuana.

I’m tempted to agree with both sentences. The rule of law is vital, after all, and I definitely don’t like (and not for the first time) when Attorney General Jeff Sessions uses the Justice Department (DOJ) to hassle people for victimless crimes.

But here’s my quandary: Should we applaud if government officials ignore laws, even laws we don’t like? That approach has some distasteful implications. If you’re on the right, would you want a left-leaning government to have the leeway to ignore criminal behavior by, say, union bosses? If you’re a leftist, would you want a libertarian-leaning government to have the ability to decide that tax laws can be ignored?

Charles C. W. Cooke of National Review hits the nail on the head.

There’s no question that the right approach is for the federal government to eliminate drug laws. Heck, even people who support the War on Drugs should favor this approach since criminal justice (other than a few select areas such as treason) should be a matter for state and local governments.

And a broader point is that we simply have too many laws. Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average person unknowingly commits three felonies per day.

This means that government officials could probably indict, convict, and imprison almost all of us. Needless to say, that’s not how a free and just society should work.

Our Byzantine tax code is an example. Many of us probably unintentionally violate the law because of needless complexity. Or even if we haven’t violated the law, I’m guessing a prosecutor could convince a grand jury that we should be indicted. And who knows what would happen after that.

So while I mostly argue for tax reform because I want more growth, I also think there’s a moral argument for a simple and fair system.

And there are other laws that shouldn’t exist at all. I obviously put drug laws on that list, but I’d also add anti-money laundering laws and civil asset forfeiture laws.

All that being said, I obviously don’t want the Justice Department in Washington to waste law enforcement resources in a campaign to undermine states that have decriminalized pot. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to solve this problem.

Written by
Contributing Economist

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

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    In actuality there is no quandry at all. A federal government that actually followed the Constitution (the rule of law) would never have created such a law to begin with. Yes, repealing the law is an answer, but it assumes that the government has legal authority when it does not.

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