The Bottom One Percent
By David Henderson
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We often hear a lot, especially from those who want to tear them down, about the top 1 percent. We don’t hear nearly as much about the bottom 1 percent. Who are they? Where are they? Why are they in the bottom 1 percent? And what should we do about them?
It turns out that about two thirds of the people in the bottom 1 percent are in U.S. prisons. And of these people, a few hundred thousand are there for victimless crimes. Letting them out would help them and save us taxpayer money. That’s a win-win.
In the United States today, there are about 314 million people. One percent of the U.S. population, therefore, is 3,140,000. In our prisons today are 2.2 million people. We have a higher percent of our people in prison than any other country in the world and the percent of our population in prison has, shockingly, more than doubled since 1980.
It’s already unjust that they are in prison since they harmed no one. The person who sold drugs, for example, sold them, which means that someone voluntarily bought them. We may question the wisdom of using such drugs as marijuana and cocaine, but the people who use them should be free to make their own decisions. They might make bad decisions, but should people go to prison for making bad decisions that hurt no one but, perhaps, themselves? Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs. Would society have been better off if they had spent time in prison?
I resisted the urge to write a snarky sentence after this apparently-rhetorical-but-not-really-rhetorical question. Snark aside, I think one could seriously argue that society would be better off had both Bush and Obama spent time in prison. The argument might go something as follows: If the rich and powerful were forced to do time in prison for doing drugs, there would be a stronger incentive to end the drug war. As my Hoover colleague Joe McNamara, a former police chief of San Jose and, before that, Kansas City, Missouri, once put it in a talk he gave in Monterey to FED-UP, an anti-drug-war group of which I am treasurer:
If the authorities started making a lot of drug arrests in Pebble Beach and Carmel, the drug war would be over tomorrow.
I think he exaggerated but I think there’s a kernel of truth there.