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The Clinton Administration’s War on Privacy


The Clinton administration, self-proclaimed champion of civil liberties and small government, is a big fraud.

President Clinton’s Department of Justice, it was recently revealed, is wiretapping more and more American citizens each year. It is increasing the number of federal wiretaps by more than 30 percent annually. What’s more, the administration is bulking up the budgets of the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) at a frantic pace. Since 1993 the FBI budget has grown 53 percent, the DEA budget 33 percent. That new money permits expanded intrusion into America’s telephone communications. And it isn’t only wiretapping. Other electronic spying on Americans allows the government to monitor what phone numbers we dial.

Why all this surveillance? Most of it is part of the so-called war on drugs. Of course, it is not a war on drugs. It is a war on people. All wars are on people. The drug warriors tell us that their crusade will make us safe. What they don’t tell us is that the powers they exercise with wild abandon to fight that war threatens us worse than any drug. The land of the free and the home of the brave has become the garrison of the busybody state.

There are lots of reasons to oppose the drug war. First, to put it bluntly, as long as someone doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights, he’s entitled to wreck his life at his own expense. To update Voltaire, I may hate what you ingest, but I will defend to the death your right to ingest it. When the state denies people that right it treats them like children. Americans must stand up and tell their government: We are not children, no matter what the First Lady thinks.

Second, when government outlaws a substance, it doesn’t disappear. It gets passed to the black market, where thugs rule and profits skyrocket. Prohibition thus increases violence, corrupts children by the lure of lucre, and destroys neighborhoods. All that comes, not of drugs, but of the prohibition of drugs. Look at what happened when alcohol was outlawed.

Third, and most pertinent to the wiretap-happy Clinton administration, is this: to pursue users and sellers of drugs, the government will necessarily exercise powers repugnant to the American tradition of law, liberty, and limited government power. It will spy. It will wiretap. It will entrap. It will seize private property. It will blackmail via plea bargaining. It does those things every day.

There is a simple reason for that profoundly un-American assertion of state power. Activity involving drugs is typically consensual. Buyers, sellers, and users are doing what they want to do. People are not often forced to buy, sell, or use drugs. That being the case, in drug transactions there is no complaining party, as there is in robbery, rape, or murder (where family and friends will feel wronged). But if there is no complaining party, how are the police to detect the “crimes”? They will employ the odious tactics described above. Liberty and privacy are the price. That price is too high.

It is pointless to complain about the Clinton wiretap policy without objecting to what is driving it: the idiotic persecution of those involved with drugs. Before 1917 there were no drug laws in the United States. People could buy opiates and cocaine at the drug store. A few people wrecked their lives. Some indulged in moderation. Many abstained totally. Just as with alcohol.

And there was no drug problem. The drug problem was born with drug control. It was inflated to crisis proportions when the federal government declared outright war in the 1960s. Thus the drug problem, and much of the infringement of our liberties, won’t go away until the drug laws are repealed.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.