"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed."
-- Herman Melville
The idea of drug testing welfare recipients has been getting a lot of play lately as one of those hot-button issues that appeals to the baser biases of mankind, inflaming economic class prejudices and causing friction between the people just trying to make ends meet and the people who think they're intrinsically better than everyone else. It's sad, really, but it's an altogether too familiar tactic of conservative authoritarian politicians.
Well, here's what happens when a drug-testing law actually gets put up for debate:
Short version: A Republican in Indiana introduced the law, it was amended to include testing for the legislature because their salaries are from public coffers, and the Republican was so offended that he withdrew his bill, intentionally misstating the law and claiming there was a constitutional issue. Well, the real issue is his hypocrisy.
Situations like these, where a portion of the society tries to exploit endemic inequality for the sake of their own gain are always timebombs ticking. They will blow up in you face eventually. The society might take awhile to cogitate, but the historical trend, especially post-Dark Ages, has always been to attempt to alleviate the injustices of the world. It's actually the one bright point of hope for the human race.
There have been other such predations on the opportunities available to the less fortunate. I won't go through the litany, but it's worth pointing out that the people who are suggesting that it's a moral issue when people who take drugs get government money are often the same people who's mothers and wives were addicted to Valium, who have a standing prescription for pain pills for a "bad back," who are on anti-depressants, or who maybe are overly fond of their local bartender.
You see, people get fucked up. That what they do. Ask Rush Limbaugh. Or Ted Haggard. Maybe your drug's Vicodin or Viagra, maybe it's adrenaline, maybe it's Jesus, but one way or another homo sapiens seek an altered state. At a concert, in a race, in an ashram, in a fistfight, in the back of a '69 Charger... or on an ice-fishing whisky bender. Or maybe in Jamaica with the Rastafari, it doesn't matter, we all want an "enhancement" for our poor, weary bones. Coffee... (More about coffee later.) We have a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry that attests to the fact that humanity's ground-state often leaves much to be desired. And so, desire we do. Every doctor is Dr. Feelgood on some level, the whole point of their existence is to put you at ease. That's why it's called a disease, and the aim is to cure it. But the people who advocate drug testing basically want to hold the fact that people can't afford to run to a real doctor for feel-good pills against them. That stuff is reserved for the upper-crust, and the upper-crust ain't happy unless it's ONLY for the upper-crust. There's something about the nature of hierarchies and humanity at work.
There's a long standing prejudice against the poverty-stricken in this world. The great unwashed, they were called by the religious and the affluent (meaning both unbaptized and just plain dirty), the rabble, the masses. And a whole lot of other unsavory names. And often the epithets of race and class were combined: poor white trash... The efforts to revive those prejudices in modern politics are pathetically transparent. And the hypocrisy of it is just the most obvious facet. Ask a conservative what the difference is between a banker getting a bailout and a poor man in a welfare line waiting for his paltry bailout and you'll see what I mean.
Besides, anyone who would support drug testing welfare recipients has missed the whole point of welfare, which is to help the most wretched. To just cut the most wretched, the most addicted, the most desperate and diseased out of the system and watch them suffer and die is like using a sledge hammer to fix a faucet. It's the least creative and the least effective way to deal with a complex problem, because the problem won't just go away when you start to ignore it. It'll go to a neighborhood that has money and try to steal its sustenance. The slow leak will become a furious fountain and ruin your McMansion.
Let's let the free people of this nation, especially the ones who claim to want a small government, raise their hands if they think it's a good idea to have a government who's first response to everything is, “Hey, why don't you pee in this cup?” Want a government job? Pee in the cup. Want your tax return? Pee in the cup. Wanna get into the national park? Here's your cup.
"Oh, you're poor. We'll have to put you on a schedule. Uh, and you'll have to supply your own cup. Sorry."
* * *When I was in law school it was widely accepted (and sometimes boasted of) that the legal profession on the whole was the most drug-addled of all professions. Lawyers were substance abusers through and through. It was a triumvirate of affluence, stress, and too much responsibility, everyone understood this, everyone was at least a little sympathetic. A human being has limits. One can see why a lawmaker would hesitate to pass a law that required drug testing of people who happen to be predominantly lawyers, especially if that lawmaker is a lawyer himself, but the fact remains that lawyers have a whole lot more impact on society and on individual lives than do welfare recipients. And so do lawmakers. If drug use, and the damage from drug use on the state and federal coffers is the moral issue, then this Indiana case really rankles of the worst kind of dirty, self-serving hypocrisy there is in this world.
Mandatory drug testing has its uses, but for a free society it's inherently problematic. We're all supposed to be agents worthy of trust and respect. It is our responsibility to abide by the laws. The enforcers should only come along if there is clear evidence that we haven't. It's a question of the burden of proof.
I read a story awhile back of a guy who's wife went into the hospital to have a baby. (This is an anecdote and I'm not going to use names, so you'll have to decide the veracity for yourself, but I will say that I'm not just making it up.) They drug tested the kid before they let the parents see her. The results came back with a flag for barbituates (not sure if the flag was a Jolly Roger or not, but it seems appropriate...) and along with the results came a social worker to take the little girl away. The parents protested mightily, but hey, they had tattoos, and they were poor. They let the mom hold her baby for five minutes. As a kindness. Then whisked her away. As it turns out, the hospital had given the mother a sleeping pill the night before she went into labor. Their mistake. The couple, by a stroke of luck, got their little girl back, and as a consolation prize they got to visit the gift shop for a nice set of coffee mugs with the hospital's name on it. The social worker was like, “Here. You've seen how things work now. You're probably gonna want a cup.”
Coffee, by the way is bad for nursing infants. So I'm told.
The medical profession is the official drug dealer of our society, yet we respect them. Everything else where black market drug sales are concerned pales in comparison. They have all these procedures that are now prescribed by insurance carriers, but before all that went down medical professionals USED to know that just because you CAN test for something, it doesn't mean you SHOULD. They still know that, really, but they get greedy about charging for tests, and scared about being sued for not testing for something they should have.
Now I doubt a conservative would be caught dead reading this blog. Nonetheless, I've been trying to think of what might encompass the thought for a conservative in the off chance that he or she stumbles across this blog accidentally. We have a case where a politician put up a law that adjudged all poor people to require drug testing, but didn't like it much when the tables were turned. Perhaps something from the Bible would be in order. "Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself." Think about it. You're drug-testing a section of the population for government assistance... because you assume that they're doing drugs. What the hell ever happened to assumed innocent until proven guilty? How's that for a fundamental American concept?
Honestly. I'll never understand the conservative platform.
* * *
There is an inherent problem with any worldview that relies on a purely economic measure of the value of a human. Such views are responsible for travesties like the French Revolution's Terror, where the aristocrats were decapitated out of hand, often simply for being rich. We don't want that for our country. We should take a lesson from history; do not hate rich because they are rich, and don't hate the poor because they are poor. Monetary wealth is vacillatory in nature- there are booms and busts. The economy is fluid. Today's millionaire may tomorrow be singing Harburg and Gorney's old song:
The Bible can say what it may, but the truth is, you can't get through the world without making judgments. It is better to rely on ideals of virtue and vice to make those judgments, perhaps, that have been established for many millennia. Greed and gluttony, selfishness and hypocrisy, these seem more honest measures of men and women than bulging wallets and black credit cards. They are character assessments that come about according to what people have actually done. We judge people on their acts, not on the group they belong to, not on our biases. And this is why. (In spite of the problems of vast economic disparity, there is still some economic mobility in this country.) It is interesting; the proposition that traditional ideals of virtue and vice should guide our judgments sounds conservative, but these days it's anything but what conservative front-runners are selling.
By the way, the presumption of innocence is not only an American value, it's a truly ancient concept: "Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat." The Justinian Code.
Every law student, past and present, knows, once you start quoting Latin, you're just about done...