Piss Testing the Jobless: Where is Hatch’s Love of Freedom?

HuffPost carried a story yesterday, “Orrin Hatch: Drug Test The Unemployed,” that, while troubling in the degree of authoritarian expressed by the senator’s statement, is more troubling in the proportion of the population who supports such a measure—if my students are any indication of popular sentiment. A lot of them think this is a good idea.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions

It’s not a good idea to drug test anybody. It’s totalitarian. We don’t need bodily surveillance by the state or corporations anymore than we need the state to bug our phones or read our e-mail. It’s not that drug testing the unemployed is unnecessary; it’s that it is discriminatory.

For one thing, it’s classist. The unemployed are no different from anybody else except they don’t have a job. That’s not always or even for the most part their fault. Capitalism causes mass unemployment. Why degrade our brothers and sisters who are victimized by a system designed to benefit the few by making them piss in a cup? Isn’t it bad enough that they have to rent themselves when they’re lucky enough to be rented?

For another thing, by virtue of the fact that a disproportionate number of the unemployed are minorities, it’s racist. “But everybody is being tested!” Yes, but since minorities are disproportionately thrown into the industrial reserve during economic downturns by virtue of history and status, they will be disproportionately impacted by the policy

In a comment concerning this story in a Facebook post, I sarcastically said about the legislation, “Let’s bug their phones and read their email, too. All these unemployed people are probably talking and laughing behind our backs about how they’re bilking the taxpayer out of their money (let’s pretend for the moment that those drawing unemployment aren’t taxpayers themselves). If we’re going to invade a person’s privacy by sampling their urine and blood, then sampling their phone calls and correspondence is no problem at all, right?”

I went on to say, “Let’s all internalize the ethic of the police state and surveil each other and chant together: ‘Death to privacy! Death to privacy!’ We ought to do what they do in China and hire busybodies on every city block to spy on their neighbors and report to the government on their drug and sexual habits or whatever else the moral entrepreneurs desire to control these days. Why presume anybody’s innocent? Why preserve the Bill of Rights? We don’t need it any more. We have the PATRIOT Act. That’s right, the piss test is the new loyalty oath. It’s the new gold standard. Raise your right hand and swear you’re not a communist—er, I mean drug addict, and don’t forget to piss in this cup because we don’t believe you. It’s gold in more than just color and hue.

Here’s a stock tip for you: if this law passes, invest in drug testing corporations. The governments of the United States may be delivering to these surveillance firms millions of your fellow citizens as customers. Even if it doesn’t take off, you can look at to this way: you get some of tax dollars back. You may need them when you’re thrown out of work.

They’re already piss testing the good folks thrown out of work down in the Gulf states, thrown out of work courtesy of BP’s brilliant feats of technological genius. It’s not bad enough that fishers, net makers, and all the other workers in Gulf have to suffer the indignity of seeing their life way utterly devastated by greedy and reckless energy corporations. No, we have to go the extra mile and make them piss in a cup in front of a witness armed with latex gloves before we let them go out in the marshes and get exposed to all those toxins in order to clean up the mess BP made.

This idea is wrong and dangerous for so many reasons.

First, it’s a clear violation of the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence for the government to drug test citizens, particularly in this context.

The Fourth Amendment is quite clear on this matter: “ The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Beyond the problem of authoritarian desire, government drug testing of individuals without probable cause is unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional; I have the right to be secure in my person, and the government is required to protect that right.

The law runs afoul of the Fifth Amendment, as well, which states that no citizen shall be compelled to be a witness against themselves. This is the presumption of innocence which, like the right to privacy, is central to our freedom.

These rights are in principle true also with respect to private business firms, or at least ought to be; here, the government has utterly failed in its obligation to protect the rights of citizens. We don’t lose our civil rights when we go to work—at least we shouldn’t. Yet, the citizen doesn’t enjoy the same freedom of speech or association when she is at work.

This is problem with liberalism: it accepts the priority of capital over labor, representing a grave injustice to humanity. Because most people are forced by structural conditions to rent themselves to capital, and because the capitalist is allowed to use the workers’ labor towards his ends during the time he employs them, workers are less of a citizen during the time the capitalist uses them.

See, the rub is that, as with the slave, a worker’s labor comes with her (and the choice between working or not working, i.e., being used or being starved, is not validly rendered as the “freedom to choice”). This is why it is imperative to always keep in mind the struggle to abolish the system of wage labor so that all individuals can work for themselves and their families and their communities rather than for private interests (that is, the aristocracy).

Second, the attitude that underpins the pro-testing argument is authoritarian. In the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working people had to endure the social Darwinistic eugenicist claptrap of “scientific charity,” where the workers were divided into two categories: the “deserving poor,” e.g., the widow of a factory manager killed in war, and the “undeserving poor,” e.g., industrial workers disemployed by machinery either by accident or productivity gains. This was the method for selecting the majority for elimination from the public assistance rolls (and even elimination from society altogether through preventative incapacitation and sterilization).

The state’s claim was that this strategy would lessen the burden on the taxpayer by weeding out fraud and abuse, which, for the record, constitutes only a fraction of the paltry sum spent on public assistance and social insurance, especially compared to subsidies to business and spending on the military.

But the state’s claim is a lie. The reality is that scientific charity was shrewdly pushed by the industrialists and progressives as a method of labor control. It functioned in this capacity in several ways. For example, it kept the working class squabbling amongst itself, pitting one group of worker against another, often majority against minority and native against immigrant. This function was especially pronounced during periods of capitalist crisis when it was imperative to stifle class consciousness and labor solidarity and keep workers disorganized (like today).

This was also true for another of its functions, namely depressing wages. By throwing large numbers of people into destitution, the capitalist and his functionary forced workers still toiling in the factories to accept lower wages, lest they, too, be thrown into destitution. Yet another function was reinforcing the bourgeois ideology that people succeed or fail on account of their efforts and talents, obfuscating the reality that capitalism cannot employ all workers all the time, and sometimes it employs far fewer than at other times.

Still, even then, back then, the working people who were lucky enough to escape poverty weren’t eagerly prepared to sacrifice their civil liberties—privacy rights, the presumption of innocence, the right to remain silent—just to punish the so-called undeserving poor.

This is in stark contrast to today, where, with the death of the labor movement and the overgrowth of conservative religious ideology, much of the public is prepared to spite itself to derive some satisfaction from screwing over the poor. When a person says “we’re talking about druggies not those in need of assistance,” as a person said to me in defending this dreadful legislation, that man is not speaking truthfully (even if the falsehood comes honestly), since he is precisely talking about those in need of assistance.

Dazed by reactionary hatred for the least fortunate, it is often the case that folks making this argument don’t realize that if the government drug tests unemployed persons, then they will themselves be drug tested when they’re thrown out of work and seek assistance, an increasing possibility with the mounting capitalist crisis. At the same time, I often hear this when I ask them why a working person should want to be drug tested: “If you got nothing to hide you got nothing to worry about.” Every commissar in every totalitarian state rejoices hearing such slogans uttered by the people he seeks to control.

But this is not the way it works in free societies. In free societies, the state must have probable cause to harass citizens (you know, those people whose rights the state is supposed to be protecting). And the state’s burden must be great. There must be substantive probable cause, not “I think I smell pot” or “Why are your eyes so red?” We simply cannot allow the state to go on fishing expeditions, randomly drug testing people who are in a tight spot to see what turns up.

Advocates of piss testing represent an internalization of the authoritarian mentality. I know people bristle when I say this, but it must be said if we are to vigorously defend freedom. It’s tragic to see citizens manipulated into believing the greatest threat to their life chances come from beneath them, from the least powerful people, instead of above them, from the powerful people who really control their destinies (exploiting their labor, waging imperialist war, and wrecking the environment).

This false consciousness is evidenced by inverted priorities. Instead of getting exercised over the fact that the United States military budget exceeds a trillion dollars every year in pursuit of securing global capitalism, the taxpayer gets all worked up over a small portion of revenues going to unemployed workers—workers who pay taxes.

What every worker who loves her freedom ought to tell Orrin Hatch: “I’ll be damned if you’re going to piss test me. I pay taxes so that the state will be there for me when I need help. Now I need help, so don’t make my jump through a bunch of hoops that are popular among reactionary types who don’t have my interests in mind. I’m not a criminal. I’m a citizen and a human being.”

This brings me to the third point, namely this business about the perils of drug use. This exposes a bit of fallacious reasoning and, for many of those who oppose drugs, hypocrisy. We have a saying in science that, while you are entitled to your opinion, such as it is, you are not entitled to your facts. Here come some facts: The worst drugs in our society are cigarettes and alcohol and prescription drugs. Around half a million Americans die every year from tobacco consumption (some five million around the world die from smoking this weed). Some 85,000 Americans die every year from alcohol use. Deaths from cocaine are a fraction of the deaths attributable to alcohol. In fact, deaths from all illicit drug use combined runs around 15,000 persons annually, and many of these deaths are caused because these drugs are illegal (making them illegal makes them more unsafe). Nobody has ever died from smoking marijuana.

Do we kick people off of unemployment insurance because they smoke tobacco or drink alcohol? Of course not. You can answer that question by asking this question: “Do we live in a totalitarian society?” Moreover, almost as many Americans die from poor diet and physical inactivity every year as die from tobacco. Are we going to kick these folks off of unemployment insurance? Are we going to force them to stand on scales or run a bit on the treadmill to see if they’re short of breath?

If those advocating drug testing were consistent, then they would call for throwing people off the rolls for smoking and drinking and eating, too. That would likely eliminate most people from government assistance. Ah, even better, right? I hope not. Drug prohibition, like alcohol prohibition before it, has been a colossal failure—if judged from the perspective of human freedom. You can generalize that result.

As a matter of principle we have to get beyond this desire to micromanage the lives of other people. If people want to smoke pot or sniff cocaine or drink a martini or eat sausage and gravy, then it’s nobody’s business if they do. Nobody should be punished for making such a choice (often such choices carry their own punishments).

Beyond respecting personal choice and privacy, the drug war is a much greater threat to humanity than drug use. This isn’t a matter of opinion. We have tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters languishing in the gulags for drug possession. We have husbands, wives, fathers, mother, sons, and daughters snatched from their families and communities by the police state. Police cruise the inner cities like sharks in search of prey, kicking in doors on rumors and profiles and forcing human beings to the ground to be restrained by shackles and tortured with Tasers.

Of course, judged from the anti-freedom perspective, the drug war has been a tremendous success. It allows for the warehousing and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of surplus people—millions over the course of years. It allows for the erosion of the civil liberties of all citizens, thus strengthening the hand of the state over the people. But what this represents for us, the people, especially when we internalize it and express our desire for it, is nothing short of catastrophic.

I am not shocked that so many of my fellow citizens agree with Orrin Hatch. Decades of indoctrination in authoritarian thinking has brought the population to this point. I know the power of ideology on the human psyche. I know that efficacy of mind control on the citizen. I know how irrational fear and hatred—of drugs and the people who use them—upend the moral capacities of otherwise decent people.

I am not shocked by it, but I am horrified by it. My horror has noting to do with a bleeding heart. It has to do with love of freedom.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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