As you may or may not know, Points’ HQ is nestled in the sticky, swampy collegiate backwater of Gainesville, Florida. Located just a few hours from the state capital of Tallahassee, we here at the University of Florida get a regular chance to see Governor Rick Scott at work. While Scott’s archconservative policies don’t tend to play well within Gainesville’s baby blue confines, even the Governor’s most ardent critics must acknowledge Scott’s chutzpa. The Governor is conservative in mindset, but certainly not in method, as to watch him work Congress is to watch a man very much on the vanguard of reactionary politics. Without sounding overly grandiloquent, I consider Mr. Scott nothing less than the Arnold Schoenberg of the Tea Party scene.
The first fortnight of March has seen Rick Scott pushing an agenda that, as is so often the case, finds Florida’s chief executive blazing a new trail for the right. Florida, like many other states, remains ensnared in recession and that has the head of the Sunshine State feverishly searching the 99% for scapegoats. Having already put in place drug and alcohol tests for welfare recipients, Mr. Scott just recently passed a measure instituting drug testing for the state’s public employees, a move that will, by no means, address the economic issues he claims are his top priority. The Florida legislature passed the measure on March 9 and, pending legal challenges, government agencies will soon have the power to, once every three months, randomly test up to 10% of their workforce for drugs (illegal and prescription) and alcohol.
Scott and his supporters claim that the measure is not politically driven, but is rather an earnest attempt to protect the public from impaired public employees. Moreover, it will provide an opportunity for – or, perhaps more accurately, will foist the opportunity upon – civil servants with drug problems to “get clean.” Despite the professed good intentions of the measures, the proposal has raised objections from both the right and left, bringing together an unlikely coalition of labour unionists, lawyers, and libertarians. While the groups do not necessarily share the same concerns – conservatives have more often expressed worry over the costs of the program; liberals frequently seem to see the central issue as being one of personal rights to privacy – the opposition is very real, though unlikely to derail Scott’s plans. At this point, the only real barrier to drug testing Florida’s public employees is the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear upcoming legal challenges on whether the program violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, specifically those measures barring illegal search and seizure.
Given that public drug testing is experiencing opposition from both sides of the aisle, and the program will be burdened with real challenges regarding both expense and legality, why is the Scott government so insistent on pursuing this policy? As Mr. Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor points out, it’s not really about drugs. Rather, the Scott government is trying to make political hay out of insinuating that the economy is bad because of waste, inefficiency, and theft. Jonsson spoke to Colin Gordon, a labor historian at the University of Iowa, who notes that, “despite our constitutional legal traditions, there’s always a lot to be reaped from the argument that if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Gordon laments “how little weight the civil liberties argument has – an implication that has become exaggerated in the war-on-terror era, and which says we can and should suspend liberties for people who don’t deserve them.”
Florida may be the most zealous state in pursuing drug-testing programs, but it is hardly the only one to hoe that row. Two dozen states have now floated the idea of mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and public employees over the last few years, and–in what should come as no surprise–Arizona has been almost as proactive as Florida on this front. Just this week, Senator Steve Smith (R-Maricopa) proposed Senate Bill 1495, requiring those applying for welfare to undertake drug testing, much in the same way Florida requires. Senator Smith illucidated his rationale to the Tucson Citizen’s Mary Jo Pitzl, explaining how “if you are so fortunate to live in a nation to get an unemployment check … when you’re down on your luck, the very least you should be able to do is prove you’re of sound mind and body to earn — earn — that benefit” [sic]. Smith’s mystifying logic – that it somehow helps society to create a permanent underclass of drug addicts with no access to public aide – eludes even some fellow Republicans. Rep. Vic Williams (R-Tucson), for instance, has the good sense to note that swelling welfare roles may have more do with the state of the national economy than with welfare cheats and drug addicts. Mr. Williams’ objections are anomalous within the larger context of Arizona politics, however, and the Grand Canyon State is poised to start testing welfare applicants in the near future.
National debate over the wisdom (or lack thereof) of mandatory drug testing has done little to change the opinions of the famously conservative Arizona state government. In her glibly-titled letter “No Drug Test, No Welfare,” published in the March 19 edition of USA Today, Arizona state representative Kimerbly Yee (R-Phoenix) employs an array of logical fallacies to shout down her opponents. Yee begins by appealing to emotion, explaining that “taxpayers should not be in the business of funding the lifestyles of those who are addicted to drugs, thereby condoning illegal behavior,” implying that not drug testing welfare applicants is no better than tacitly enabling known drug users. Ms. Yee then uses an appeal to wishful thinking, explaining that the state is not looking to punish members of the underclass, but instead wishes to confront “addicts with their drug abuse problems so they may quickly receive treatment and become productive members of society again.” She then ends with the oft-used appeal to spite by posing opposition to the program as being motivated by the belief that “denying benefits to drug users unjustly punishes families and takes money away from children.” In a naked attempt to stir up the welfare-cheat boogeyman, Yee notes that “drug users deny their own children a healthy lifestyle and positive example.” Yee’s presumed conclusion – that a better way to help the children of drug addicts is to forbid their parents from receiving welfare – goes mysteriously unspoken.
Before I go on, I should explain that I parse Ms. Yee’s defense of Arizona’s drug testing policies not out of churlishness, but to show the intellectual weakness of claims that have immense political traction in the current political climate due primarily to their appeal to emotion.
Opponents of drug-testing policies have, much to their detriment, failed to address the emotional justifications of public drug testing, focusing instead on the legal dimensions of the issue. The Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has already undertaken a challenge to Governor Scott’s policies, noting the organization’s opposition to “any kind of suspicionless drug testing of any population.” The editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat joined Gordon and the ACLU in voicing their opposition to the Governor’s policies, mentioning not just the seeming illegality of such measures, but also the policy’s general fecklessness. In “Our Opinion: Bad Law,” the paper’s editor suggests that Scott’s move is devoid of logic, noting that “the governor’s general counsel did not provide specific examples of drug use” among public employees that spurred this action but, “instead, he told the judge the obvious: ‘Drugs are very harmful. They’re very dangerous.’” This is hardly a rationale for a policy that would allow the government to terminate an employee after a single failed drug test. The editor of The Democrat is left with only one conclusion at the end of it all: “What we have is a bill that is constitutionally suspect, that addresses a problem nobody has identified, that will waste time and money and that will take resources from more valuable programs. But it does punish state workers. Perhaps in this political climate, in the eyes of some, that alone makes it worth signing into law.”
Ultimately, drug-testing opponents are losing the fight, something I got a vivid sense of last night. During dinner, my wife and I discussed the ethics of drug testing welfare recipients. Needless to say, I was against the measure and I hardly expected my wife – a leftist, feminist, secularist public school teacher of inner-city kids – to support it. To my great surprise, however, she seemed quite open to the concept. For twenty minutes, I peppered her with arguments, proposing constitutional, ethical, and economic objections, only to find her maintaining the view that, whatever its cost, drug testing provided a net good for the state. Eventually, I realized, through badgering my wife – who was a good sport throughout – that the popularity of drug testing public employees and welfare recipients falls under the rubric of what a majority of the public understands to constitute “common sense,” a logic of far greater power than empirical analysis or deductive logic. To Mr. Scott’s benefit, drug testing just feels right to many people and that’s a non-argument that’s awfully hard to counter.