Thursday, July 10, 2008

A line we don't want them to cross

This proposal by the city of San Juan to institute random drug testing among students reminded me of a similar proposal five years ago.

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missingpoints classic: A line we don't want them to cross
7 June 2003

The trouble with protecting civil liberties is that people often don't "get" it. Civil libertarians, whether in government or in the streets, have a hard time convincing people without resorting to horror scenarios. This earns them the moniker of doomsayers, pessimists, or worse, rebels or "agents of destabilization." The last one being the most dangerous as this brand has often led to arrests or summary executions by paramilitary forces, especially in the provinces.

The trouble with "selling" the idea of civil liberties to the normal unaligned masses is that it doesn't solve problems. At times it even makes problem-solving for the government a bit more difficult. Like, say the current civil liberties issue of mandatory drug testing in school.

Your average Juan would wonder what all the fuss is about drug testing. At first glance, the ones protesting against it seem to be making a big issue over a move that will be a big step in identifying users (and supposedly pushers). If you're not doing drugs, then it would seem that there's nothing to worry about. You shouldn't be afraid of a drug test (random or not). Unless of course you're going to force me to fork over 300 bucks to test myself, I'm supposed to be just fine with it right? All this talk of protecting rights just makes things more difficult for the authorities.

That's true. Civil liberties do make things more difficult for government but – and this is what blows the average Joe's mind – that's exactly the point.

You want to be efficient, try fascism, or dictatorship, or absolute monarchy, or a Taliban-like theocracy. Governments like these have powers the likes of Bayani Fernando haven't seen and, for the most part, they're very orderly. But I'm not sure you'd want to live there.

An efficient government is not the end goal of democracy. Those who argue that "too much freedom" for the people leads to inefficiency have got it ass backwards. The appeal of democracy lies in its respect for individual rights. The idea that even the government can't (unless in extreme circumstances) interfere with how a person lives his personal life is a cornerstone of this form of government.

Constitutional law scholars will even tell you that the whole rights issue is a tug-of-war between the amount of independence citizens have and the amount of control a government can exercise. One extreme (fascism, right) calls for total control by the authorities while the other (anarchy, left) is pure individual rights and no central government.

For those of us whose systems of government lie somewhere in between, the question is how far left or right we're supposed to stay is decided by how the whole tug-of-war balances out. Just like in the game, there are markers that tell us how far in either direction we've gone.

The mandatory drug testing issue is one of those markers.

The reason civil libertarians often make a big deal out of simple things like Miranda rights is that they're markers. Crossing them sometimes leads to irrecoverable ground gained by one side, usually the government. It's more difficult to regain freedoms, especially if curtailing them makes the authorities' jobs easier (like the curfew for minors).

I'm sure a lot of people -- kids and adults alike – must be wondering what liberals are crowing about. Is mandatory random drug testing in schools really a violation of human rights? Or is it a good way to catch users and get them to lead us to the pushers and dealers?

It's all of these things and more. It's a notch that separates

How would you like it when someone just stops you on the street and frisks you? That's the basic idea. It's the idea of being harassed unnecessarily by agents of the law. Unlike SARS, this is not a contagious and deadly disease (though some would argue otherwise) that requires draconian measures like quarantine.

There are other arguments against random drug testing, not least of which are its cost and the effectiveness. I leave it up to them though. My concern is the bigger civil liberties issue, this line in particular. I'll try to make sure no one crosses it.

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