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May 12, 2008

What will the new libertarian presidential candidate say about mass incarceration and the drug war?

CNN is reporting here that former Republican Representative Bob Barr "formally jumped into the White House race Monday as a candidate for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination."  Here's more:

Barr, the onetime darling of conservatives who led the impeachment fight against former President Bill Clinton, said he is running because voters want a choice beyond the two political parties. "They believe that America has more and better to offer than what the current political situation is serving up to us," he said Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. "The reason for that is very simple, they believe in America as I believe in America.  We believe in an America that is not and should not be and should never be driven by fear as current policies on behalf of both parties are in this country."

I consider mass incarceration and the drug war to be two great examples of policies embraced by both parties which are "driven by fear," and I sincerely believe that "America has more and better to offer" on these fronts.  Notably, this Atlantic.com post notes that Barr's campaign slogan is "Liberty for America."  This slogan could certainly foreshadow opposition to mass incarceration and the drug war in modern America.

Disappointingly, what appears to be Barr's official website has very little discussion of criminal justice issues.  However, these quotes from this "Issues" page on the website hint that Barr might now be the presidential candidate most likely to complain about extreme government power in the criminal justice system:

"The nation’s founders drafted the Constitution to sharply limit the federal government’s powers. The horrors perpetrated by the many collectivist tyrannies of the 20th Century demonstrate that the danger of government, any government, violating individual liberty is greater today than when America was founded."...

"The sustained government attack on the sanctity of the rights of the individual, including their right to be secure in their privacy and property, has created a moral and Constitutional crisis. America’s elected officials at all levels must renew their respect for the law and work to protect the rights of individuals."...

"Finally, an increasingly intrusive Nanny State is watching over our nation, meddling in the lives of its citizens.  New measures, often rushed through legislatures and regulatory agencies with little consideration or thought, seek to control ever more aspects of people's lives....  It is time to again trust individuals to make their own decisions. At the core of libertarianism is a trust in and respect for the personal choices of every individual. All Americans should be free to decide what is best for themselves and their families." 

Some related general posts on Campaign 2008:

May 12, 2008 at 01:08 PM | Permalink


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I don't wish to presume on your time, but I was wondering if you could spell out a bit more the difference between a policy "driven by fear" and one driven by realistic concern over a significant danger.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 12, 2008 4:27:37 PM

Not to speak for our host, but only to throw some wood in the fire:

CAMPOS: A nation of hysterics

Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for The New York Sun, caused quite a stir earlier this month when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son take a subway and bus by himself across Manhattan. The boy had been begging her to allow him to test his big city commuting skills on his own, and she finally agreed, handing him a map, a subway token, some quarters, and a $20 bill.

She didn't give him her cell phone, nor did she secretly tail him as he sallied forth across Gotham alone.

Within days Skenazy was on various television news programs, explaining why she was not, contrary to the opinion of many commentators, America's Worst Mother.

Posted by: George | May 12, 2008 5:18:49 PM

Here is another:

Predator Panic: A Closer Look

Benjamin Radford

“Protect the children.” Over the years that mantra has been applied to countless real and perceived threats. America has scrambled to protect its children from a wide variety of dangers including school shooters, cyberbullying, violent video games, snipers, Satanic Ritual Abuse, pornography, the Internet, and drugs.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent protecting children from one threat or other, often with little concern for how expensive or effective the remedies are—or how serious the threat actually is in the first place. So it is with America’s latest panic: sexual predators.

According to lawmakers and near-daily news reports, sexual predators lurk everywhere: in parks, at schools, in the malls—even in children’s bedrooms, through the Internet. A few rare (but high-profile) incidents have spawned an unprecedented deluge of new laws enacted in response to the public’s fear. Every state has notification laws to alert communities about former sex offenders. Many states have banned sex offenders from living in certain areas, and are tracking them using satellite technology. Other states have gone even further; state emergency leaders in Florida and Texas, for example, are developing plans to route convicted sex offenders away from public emergency shelters during hurricanes. “We don’t want them in the same shelters as others,” said Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw. (How exactly thousands of desperate and homeless storm victims are to be identified, screened, and routed in an emergency is unclear.)

Posted by: George | May 12, 2008 5:23:23 PM


Cracked up

"There is no major corporation which could have afforded the coverage and exposure that crack got for free," he adds. You might say it was a very successful product launch. And the first network special devoted to it, CBS News' "48 Hours on Crack Street," got the best ratings of any news show in the previous five years.

Reinarman describes the crack mania as an old-fashioned "moral panic," of the sort that led to alcohol prohibition earlier in the century. In the years before alcohol was banned, reporters credulously accepted claims that prohibition could end poverty and domestic violence. Coverage focused on extreme examples of drunks who committed crimes and implied that this could happen to anyone who imbibed. Alcohol was also linked with scorned minorities -- mainly the Irish and Germans at the time, although the Women's Christian Temperance Union hailed sobriety as "the white life," and linked drunkenness with African-Americans as well. The media and prohibitionists eventually spoke almost as one.

When it came to crack, the media escalated the panic and propelled a political arms race, in which Democrats and Republicans fought to outdo each other as anti-drug crusaders. The result was sentences for dealers and users that are longer than for rapists and even killers.

Posted by: George | May 12, 2008 5:29:28 PM

Well, I don't think there is a way to spell out the difference. Fear is an emotion that can be described but not defined objectively for every one. What is realistic for you may not be realistic for me, and significant danger is not definitive. What is significant and what is danger? Obviously everyone does not agree and it can't be quantified in any evidence based way.

I welcome Bob Barr in the race as a new and different voice. We have needed a change in dialog and this accounts for the much of the support that Barack Obama has received. Any libertarian views that Bob Barr introduces will influence and shape the content of the political discussion. We need a serious examination of the role of government in our lives.

Posted by: beth curtis | May 12, 2008 5:38:02 PM

Respondents reporting whether they think it will be necessary to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism in the United States pdf

Posted by: George | May 12, 2008 5:51:07 PM

Beth Curtis:

If as you suggest there is no way to define what constitutes a policy "driven by fear," then wouldn't it be best to abjure use of that catch-phrase in favor of specifics?

The problem I have is that the phrase is often used to trivialize perfectly legitimate concerns by painting them as overwrought, irrational and nativist. It is the lexicon of a cheap form of argument. A more worthwhile form of argument, it seems to me, is to provide details about the problem Policy X is designed to address, what Policy X has done or is likely to do to alleviate the problem, how much that will cost, what alternative policies are available, and how much they will cost.

For those opposing the war on drugs to say that it is a policy "driven by fear" no more advances the argument than for those opposing reductions in greenhouse gases to say that IT is a policy "driven by fear." The question, be it about drugs or global warming (or anything else), is whether the fear is JUSTIFIED. Simply to paint the other side as irrationally fearful, without making the case, is unworthy and, perhaps worse, unenlightening.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 12, 2008 9:00:29 PM

We do just need to decide what the problem is and that requires a dogma free dialog. We're not likely to get it, but with the addition of another voice we have a better shot at hearing a conversation that is less polemic. I agree that "America has more and better to offer" and hope that McCain and Obama will have to answer and incorporate views that are not necessarily part of their political base. The addition of a libertarian candidate may help.

Posted by: beth curtis | May 12, 2008 9:34:32 PM

Please. What about "truth in sentencing," "coddeling criminals," "crack babies," "mandatory minimums" and every other soundbite the Right used when in power? Now they say, "Can't we all just get along and be rational?"

The time to be rational is when in power.

At least "driven by fear" and "smart on crime" aren't disingenuous. People really are more afraid of crime than need be and the Right really was stupid on crime when it attacked everything liberal and claimed only the police could solve problems.

Posted by: George | May 12, 2008 10:32:58 PM


"Now [conservatives] say, 'Can't we all just get along and be rational?'"

I have no portfolio to speak for conservatives, but, as one conservative, I most assuredly do not want to "get along" with the likes of Samantha Power (Hillary Clinton is a "monster"); Al Sharpton (a liberal power broker and hoaxster from way back); or Revered Wright (white America created AIDS, and numerous other gems over the paat 20 years).

"The time to be rational is when in power."

The time to be rational is always.

"At least 'driven by fear' and 'smart on crime' aren't disingenuous."

Kinda depends on the specifics.

"People really are more afraid of crime than need be..."

People in some neighborhoods are more fearful than they need be, sure. People in others are well justified in being fearful.

"...and the Right really was stupid on crime when it attacked everything liberal and claimed only the police could solve problems."

I never heard, or heard of, any conservative saying that only the police can solve problems. Got a quotation for me?

As it happens, the police are particularly good at solving some problems and not so good at solving others. One problem they are notoriously bad at solving is reversing the culture of psychobabble, diluted responsibility and excuse-making that underlies a good deal of misbehavior, criminal and otherwise.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 12, 2008 11:28:24 PM

Good points. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (search) has suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television. See, Democrats can be loons.

Are you seriously arguing that "the purpose of prison is punishment" wasn't attack on liberalism and its acknowledgment that prevention can help? Please. The Right only recently made that acknowledgment with the Second Chance Act. But will they put enough into it to make it work? Not likely.

Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims by Joel Best, 1999, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marilyn McShane
Northern Arizona University

"Best's latest work could also be aptly titled, "The Myth of Random Violence," as it evokes the images of what we could expect if there were such a thing as "truly" random violence. There is much to reflect upon in the almost mystical difference between the public's perceptions of random violence and what the academic community knows to be true about violence. Interestingly enough, research and study in this field would be futile if we could not create theory, profiles, and predictions based on the patterns, cycles and statistical probabilities of offenses and reoffenses. Crime mapping, risk prediction and criminal careers are all based on the notion that crime and victimization are not random."

You're right, Mr. Otis, it is not just the Right and I spoke out of turn there. However, there is "driven by fear" pandering for votes. Perhaps you were sincere in requesting a rational discussion, and if so I apologize. If you are sincere, a good place to start would be driving the fear based rhetoric out of the debate rather than calling it a catch-phrase . It's there. It's real. And any rational debate is impossible as long as it is controlling.

Posted by: George | May 13, 2008 1:28:20 AM

I wonder what libertarians would say about this:


Posted by: federalist | May 13, 2008 8:21:29 AM


Thanks. I am a conservative and a fairly active one, but I think (1) Doug hosts this blog in part to promote reasoned discussion as opposed to sloganeering, and (2) sloganeering doesn't persuade anyone anyway, and soon enough degenerates into epithets, which are unpleasant in addition to being uneducational.

I have no doubt that fear drives some of the discussion of crime and other issues. But fear is not objectionable or unworthy per se. Being afraid when you ought to be is part of what allows human beings to survive. So the question is not whether Policy X is fear-driven; the question is whether that fear is justified by the facts on the ground and, if so, whether Policy X is likely to deal with what causes the fear better than Policies A, B or C.

My problem with the particular phrase "fear driven policy" is that it seems often to be used to dismiss the fear a priori, without looking under the rock to see whether there's something there that a sensible person OUGHT to be afraid of.

Oscar Goodman started out as a criminal defense lawyer, and I argued a case against him in the Ninth Circuit a zillion years ago.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 13, 2008 8:36:58 AM

Bill, you aren't quite accurate - Oscar Goodman started out working for Arlen Spector in the Philadelphia DA's Office before moving west and becoming a criminal defense attorney.

You raise a good question as what is the difference between a "rational response to a threat" and a "policy based by fear." Generally, to be rational, a policy must have a logical connection between its stated end. What makes that a difficult distinction is that a policy can be both a rational reaction to a threat and a irrational reaction based on fear. To cite one example - imagine there is a law banning convicted sex offenders from coaching little league baseball. One could (and likely would) say that prohibiting convicted child molesters from being little league coaches is rational - sex offenders usually strike children they know and that gives them access to children. Few people are likely to have a problem with that. On the other hand, one could also argue that prohibiting someone who at the age of 17 was convicted of having consensual sex with a 15 year old being prohibited from coaching little league is irrational.

Not that answers the question at all. It is possible that quite simply the difference between a policy based on a rational reaction to a threat and fear based hysteria may be like what Justice Stewart said about obscenity in Jacobelis v. Ohio - "I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it." Obviously, one could cite examples of what would be a rational law based on a threat - it is hard to imagine anyone who would disagree that banning private possession of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, or chemical weapons is a rational response to the threat those "weapons of mass destruction" to use the modern parlance are threats that are so dangerous as to prevent people from having them. Simularly, I would think that most people would also agree that a sentence of death or life in prison for driving at least one mile above the speed limit is an irrational policy based on fear despite there being a rational threat that people driving above the speed limit endanger public safety. Of course, for anything else - well, people are likely to disagree which probably explains why the founding fathers built in protections for the minority against a temporary faction or majority into the Constitution and provided for separation of powers.

Posted by: Zack | May 14, 2008 12:47:03 PM


Thanks. I had no idea Oscar Goodman at one time worked for Arlen Specter. That must have been one hell of an office!

Use of the phrase "fear-driven" X seems to me to short-circuit and de-legitimize any attempt at actual analysis, and, I think, is often designed to do just that. I don't think you and I really disagree on this. The question that needs to be asked is not whether people are afraid of (fill in the blank); the question is whether they SHOULD be afraid of it. If not, then the debate is enhanced by explaining WHY their fear is irrational. If the fear is well-grounded, however, then to label the reaction as fear-driven is no more than an attempt to paint one's opponent as irrational, and evade a discussion of what the grounds for fear are and what ought to be done to reduce the danger.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 17, 2008 4:32:25 PM

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