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BPR Interviews: John P. Walters

John P. Walters served as the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush.

Ryan Frant: I would like to ask about one of your mentors, Allan Bloom. Apart from being an expert of the great texts, Bloom has also managed to place himself in conversation with their writers in, for example, his translation and interpretation of The Republic. What did you learn from Allan Bloom about how to approach, read, and interpret the Western canon? 

John Walters: Well Allan Bloom is one of those bigger than life people and a great example of someone who lives their lives by taking these books seriously: he tried to understand and teach and expand understanding through conversation with others about these great works that are our intellectual cultural heritage. He was someone who I think is all too scarce in universities today especially with the many issues in higher education like the decline in cohesion, openness, and serious study. One of the big problems with higher education today is the diminishment of people who love books and their teaching in a serious way. It is not a problem with the course catalog, political correctness, or management: it is a problem of talent and the cultivation of a certain kind of human being. I do not hear many people talk about that when they talk about so-called problems in higher education. I think there is also a problem in our understanding of what an education is. There are a lot of people who think that higher learning is about downloading information into their brains, but that is not real learning. You can teach people certain tasks and certain professional education, but the underlying education, especially for talented students, is being stolen from them. Part of that theft is not being able to encounter people like Allan Bloom. There were people who learned in a way that was alive and engaging, not antiquarian. Though there are some people like this today, they are no longer the life of higher learning.

RF: I am interested in your perspective towards the ancient political philosophers. What is something important in the ancient philosophers that has not been given adequate attention in our times?

JW: Well I think Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all circle back to the issue of human good. We live in a country that was founded on principles that include the pursuit of happiness, but we do not think about it that seriously in many cases. So many things in modern society have attracted our happiness, and we tend to become hungry and jaded too easily. I think the ancient political thinkers bring a way of thinking in which happiness derives from an ordering of the soul. This method allows one to think about the conflicting wants we have and whether or not they are chaotic or have some order. Another contrast to the ancients is that they are more hierarchical. We tend to want flatter terrain, and various claims about the good are supposed to be treated the same. The effort to create hierarchy is done with suspicion. That may be right but in order to tell whether a particular orientation is right, you have to know something about what the alternatives are. 

RF: Modern political philosophy has struggled to define a unified idea of the good life. As such, thinkers like Isaiah Berlin and Robert Nozick have averred that the government should not enforce one conception of the good life and instead let people define the good life for themselves. Two questions: Is there indeed a plurality of good lives which are incompatible but equally virtuous? Is this plurality overstated to excuse behavior such as drug use which is ostensibly inimical to the good life?

JW: I think the goal of the American regime is to allow individuals to follow their own conception of happiness within what can be bounded a political order that respects the rights of others, allows liberty, and protects the lives of the citizens. Because we have a regime that puts premium on liberty, we allow a wide range of different alternatives — where Sparta was prescriptive about different roles and responsibilities, we want people to be open to everything. I think the problem is that drugs are a kind of choice that can be begun in the condition of freedom, but they can take away that freedom. If you want to go back to antiquity, go back to Homer and the scene of the land of the lotus-eaters. In a certain way the drug problem is like that, and we have trouble seeing that because we want to believe that our desires are supposed to be unfettered to the extent to which they do not damage other individuals’ desiring. 

What happens when those desires are not necessarily hurtful to others but are destructive to my life and liberty? One of the biggest problems for our society regarding the drug problem is a confusion of freedom with drug-use as opposed to drug-use as antithetical to freedom. When you have tens of thousands of people dying of overdoses and untold millions addicted and unable to live their lives, this is not another expression of freedom. There is a distinction between how you want to wear your hair and whether or not you want to use drugs. The difficulty for a free society is to establish a consensus on proper limits. 

So you touched on something important where, in ancient times, individual freedom was responsibility. As society has continued to remove restraints on individuals, society has collapsed: in our major cities we now have people on the streets who are clearly suffering and we do not respond — whether its mental illness, substance abuse, or both. What is happening now in most major cities in the United States — and even in cities that pride themselves on being conscious of social justice (like San Francisco, Los Angeles) — is that a bunch of people are out on the streets. We are not helping them by cutting off the poison (which I believe is the proper way to understand these drugs) and the cities will let them suffer until they die or create enough harm that they have to be put into the criminal justice system. I think that is an example of how difficult it is for us to deal with these kinds of human inclinations: what is free, what is not. 

RF: A few months ago the issue of regulating flavored vapor-products divided Republicans on their vision of government power. Indeed, this debate has often been framed in terms of big versus small government. Do you think the debate is this simple? Is there a deeper issue besides the size of the government that people on the Right should focus on?

JW: I think the same principle or the same problem manifests itself here. All these products essentially are a way of delivering nicotine as an addictive substance. Now the argument is that they can be delivered by these new technologies in a way that is less detrimental than smoking cigarettes. But there is a societal issue underneath all of this. Do we want to encourage the marketing of a product that causes large numbers of people to become addicted to nicotine? Again, there has been a lot of claims made that this will cause people to smoke fewer cigarettes. But it is clearly going to explode the number of people who consume nicotine through these technologies. These companies will not drive themselves out of business through providing vape products that cut off the tobacco sales: they are creating a new market that they can claim is not subject to the restraints and criticism of big tobacco while still using the weapon of nicotine dependence. People should not think ‘well people know what nicotine dependence is and they should choose’ because the problem with nicotine is precisely that it attacks the ability to choose. It creates a craving, impairs judgment, creates irreversible cognitive changes that discredit the claim that someone is a free individual making the choice. 

RF: You have noted before that “moral poverty” has contributed to drug addiction in this country, and we spoke before about the absence of ancient, moral lessons in universities. How can America solve this moral problem? 

JW: Well that is a bigger issue than the drug issue. The question is how do you establish a democratic consensus for appropriate moral standards that recognizes a free country as based on self-restraint, self-direction, and health on the part of its citizens. The reason we do not have the education system of Sparta is that we are not trying to make people the same way. We are in fact trying to allow people to be different, and we value the richness of diversity among human beings. 

However, the problem is how does that not become identical with the license for self-destructive or other destructive behavior. Part of the problem of moral poverty is an inability to grapple with the responsibilities and limits of individual behavior so that peoples’ lives are better and not worse. How do we help them to see the value of education; how do we help them to see that the responsibilities they have are not just a burden but are a fulfilling way of being productive citizenship? I think part of this has been that every effort to establish limits has been cast as arbitrary in ways I do not think are responsible. Now not all limits in the past were just. There were and still are grave injustices. But, the point of the problem is the moral poverty of not being able to talk about these issues. 

The ancients said religious, literary, and philosophical traditions can help us gain greater clarity on morality. But individual clarity is not the same as clarity within the body politic of America, and that has been driven by a kind of radicalism and a lack of appreciation for responsibility. Let me put it this way: you have no doubt heard people advocate for creating circumstances where people can use drugs more safely, that they would be given drugs by the government or people could use their drugs in an area where there are medical professionals. 

The question I think for those who care about freedom is whether that is a democratic solution. Is making people incapable of directing their own lives freely consistent with the standards of free and democratic government? They cannot govern themselves — they are essentially being enslaved to substance abuse while being kept alive. What kind of nation do you become when that is identical to free people? That is an area where you can see the fusion of choices that destroy freedom with the desire to preserve freedom.

RF: The war on drugs has primarily focused on limiting the supply of drugs entering the U.S. Nevertheless, it seems drug dealers have the same incentives to continue their operations. Are there effective ways for the U.S. to tackle these root issues, or is the status quo the best we can expect.

JW: Yea I am a radical on this, and I will confess that I have rethought what I thought while I worked on the drug issue going back to the Reagan administration in the Department of Education. I focused on prevention education while I worked in the drug policy office during the first Bush administration. Later, when I was the Drug policy director for George W. Bush, I spent a lot of time trying to create what we called a balanced strategy [limiting the supply and demand of drugs]. You are probably not going to meet somebody that has argued more successfully for federal money for treatment than myself. I certainly believe in treatment; I’ve helped people, friends, and family get into treatment. But consider the magnitude of the death we now face: studies have shown that through 2013 to today the number of drug-related deaths is over a million Americans. I do not know what is more shocking: the number or the indifference to those deaths. The amount of mobilization, care, and effort is not serious enough. I also think, going back to your original question, that this is completely within our power to stop. 

First, I believe we have to see this as a mass poisoning. I say this because when we teach young people about drugs, we all think “well we are giving them facts or we are discouraging them.” I had to run an anti-drug media campaign for youth when I was in the drug policy office; it was a big campaign with an advertising foot-print of 100 million dollars. We did a lot of research with professionals about what young people kept in diaries when drugs came up in their daily life, and what they almost always wrote down was “everyone uses drugs, here’s how to use drugs vs. don’t use drugs.” Therefore, the problem of creating a prevention directed change is that despite the fact that in most places people are reading about deaths all the time and are being told if you take this you die, they are still using it and dying in the tens of thousands. So I think now you have to focus on supply. 

I had previously thought you had to have a balanced strategy. But if you look at what happened with regard to something like the Breaking Bad days of meth (when we shut down those smoke-toxic labs) meth went down. When I was in office we went after Cocaine cultivation in Columbia, and at the end of the administration into Obama, it dropped 60% in the United States because we eradicated coca. Now it has been neglected, and cocaine deaths are coming back. Nobody had a vast desire for fentanyl before it was mass-produced in China. This is not a demand-side problem; this is more of as I say a mass poisoning problem. 

Now the argument you usually hear is that we cannot stop it. Well, my argument is we should throw the bull-shit flag on that kind of thinking. Compare this to terrorism: we learned on September 11, 2001, that a few people using airplanes could do terrible damage to citizens in the United States among other places. That is a real needle in the haystack problem to fight, but we have solved that problem. Everyone needs to be tentative about it, but the fact of the matter is that we now have the technological and organizational capacity to largely stop terrorist attacks on the United States. It is evolving but we’ve created a capacity to fight against it with great effectiveness. Compared to that, the drug problem is not a needle in the haystack problem. It is hundreds of metric tons of product retail-marketed to millions of Americans creating tons of money that has to be manipulated as well as a whole range of other vulnerabilities in terms of transportation and marketing. That is what I would call a pick-up-truck in a haystack problem. Most drugs killing Americans come across the Southern border, and most of those drugs pass within 6 feet of a uniformed federal agent. That is a monumental failure of intelligence and operations that we have to stop tolerating. My view is that you do not have this kind of historic fatality rate without what I would call a catastrophic failure of key institutions. Some of those are medical institutions. The CDC is not tracking these statistics in real-time to help us both organize things like treatment research but also to see where this poisoning is headed. They do not treat the disease of addiction as a disease — which I believe is a travesty — but also this is a catastrophic failure of the intelligence community, the law enforcement community, and the border security operations. The indifference that allows political toleration of this is perhaps the most dangerous thing regarding what you started out with. We are too likely to blame the victims for their own victimhood — to say that people who die of overdoses brought it on themselves. If they were considered victims as Americans properly were on September 11, you cannot imagine the amount of mobilization. Until that happens, we are not going to stop the devastating effect drugs are having on communities, families, and individuals.