Jonah Golberg argued last week that there is something “unlibertarian” in pointing out, as I did, that
American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election.
Jacob Sullum has replied in much more detail than I could have, concluding:
From a libertarian perspective, the war on drugs would be unjust even if its victims were a statistically precise cross-section of the American population. But the fact that it disproportionately harms members of a racial minority that was long subject to official discrimination in this country is additional cause for concern, especially since the laws it enforces grew out of explicitly racist anxieties.
But I’d like to single out this claim of Jonah’s:
It seems to me that the classical liberal is supposed to see people as autonomous and sovereign moral actors, not identity politics groups.
This sounds to me like Jonah thinks the classical liberal is supposed to play stupid. Jonah is fully aware that this is a country that for most of its history has been dominated by “identity group politics,” if you want to call it that. Blacks have been legal slaves. Jim Crow established legal racial segregation. We’ve not overcome the legacy of this. We live with urban policies that were initiated as thinly veiled attempts to reinforce residential segregation. We live with education policies that create a de facto segregated and highly unequal system of education. And, as Jacob emphasizes, drug policy has never been color-blind. To point out that it burdens blacks disproportionately is simply to point out that American public policy has never stopped being racist, has never stopped reinforcing a shameful structure of racial stratification squarely at odds with the classical liberal ideal of equal freedom under the law. Classical liberalism is not the stupid idea that there is no history. Nor is it the stupid idea that individuals who are members of groups that have been, and continue to be, victims of discriminatory state action are as fully free as individuals who are not. Classical liberalism is the demand that the state treat mature individuals as equally autonomous and sovereign moral agents, which is why it is necessary to point out the disturbingly discriminatory nature of American drug policy.