Should citizens fear our government?

February 23, 2012

Check out this video where a former police officer says that the War on Drugs has caused us citizens to fear the police and government agencies.  This raises an interesting question.  Should the government try to force its citizens to fear them in order to compel compliance with the law?

Police training often teaches that a goal of law enforcement is to instill fear in the public that if they violate the law they will be caught and prosecuted.  This is especially true in DWI law, where the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) teaches officers in the DWI Field Sobriety manual that low enforcement of DWI encourages more people to drive drunk.  To offset this "incentive" to drive drunk, officers are trained that the more people arrested and prosecuted for DWI, the lower percentage of people will risk driving drunk. 

A staple of history is that when the people of a society fear their own government for long enough they will revolt and overthrow that government control.  In America, we do this - of course - through elections.  Our founding fathers, who had just freed themselves from the control of England, understood that the best society is one where the government and people worked in unison for the betterment of all the people.  Through this new system of governance, the people will be inclined to obey the law of the land because they participated in creating the law. 

Our government was set up to be limited in their scope and power, and no branch of our government would become more powerful than any other branch.  Our leaders are elected so that they remain accountable to the people for the laws they create and enforce.   Through elections our leaders are ideally accountable to the common citizenry.  If us common folk don't like the policies our leaders create and enforce, then we can vote them out and replace them with someone who will lead in a way we desire.

There is obviously some merit to the thought that fear of punishment creates an incentive to compliance with laws.  But, there is a limit of what fear alone can accomplish.  Fear, like any emotion, has a finite limit.  Compliance with reasonable laws do not require as much fear as reason to entice compliance. 

Our nation has spent the last several decades instilling fear into our citizens in the War on Drugs.  Thousands of young people have been locked up, had their careers, lives, and education destroyed over a misdemeanor marijuana conviction.  The government's strategy has been two pronged.  They have created overly strict laws, and a campaign of misinformation they passed off as education. 

Alas, the government lies, distortions, and contradictions have been coming to light more rapidly over the past few years.  This has caused people to question the validity of not only the extreme sentencing guidelines, but of the prohibition of marijuana in the first place.  The fear of our national government in the war on drugs has seemingly began to fade as more states legalize or decriminalize marijuana possession.  This slide in fear has emboldened state political leaders to buck the will of the federal agents who insist on enforcing federal prohibition laws in order to justify their paychecks.

The federal officials who make their living off the War on Drugs have began campaigns to force medicinal marijuana facilities to close for fear of criminal and civil actions against their owners and operators.  The federal agents who enforce these laws and department directives are not elected.  They are employees doing the will of their employer.  But, ultimately, these agencies are accountable to both the President and to Congress.

Congress has the power of the purse.  They control how much money federal agencies receive, and can pass laws that forbid the spending of any money on certain enforcement activities.  President Obama promised he would not buck the will of the states or use federal tax dollars to enforce marijuana laws passed by the states.  He has apparently forgotten this promise.  The approach that lies ahead for those who champion the legalization of marijuana is two-pronged.  Vote out leaders who violate their promises and vote in Congressional leaders who will defund enforcement activities - whether criminal or civil in nature - against marijuana dispensaries and users in states where such activity is legal. 

Do we fear the federal government too much to hold them accountable through our elections?  November will tell.