What started as a debate on the role of government in a civil society wound around to such topics as drugs and racism in a big-name political debate on the Penn State campus.
Ron Paul, former Republican congressman and three-time presidential candidate, traded arguments with Barney Frank, former longtime Democratic congressman Monday evening to a full house at the Schwab Auditorium.
From the earliest days of the philosophers, learning was about discussion and debate, said Christian Brady, moderator and dean of the Schreyer Honors College. The event was meant to foster a genuine, mature and civil exchange of ideas about issues fundamental to society.
Brady opened the debate with a question on the oft-debated issue of marijuana legalization, asking which would be more productive to society — recreational legalization or medical legalization.
Paul said he agreed with any initiative that will move us closer to a free society, saying a civil society and a free society go hand in hand.
“Everyone’s for a civil society, no matter what they believe in,” he said. “But a free society is indeed civil.”
On the drug issue, he said, lawmakers should be seeking to legalize freedom. Under those circumstances, people are free to make their own choice, take all the risk and suffer the consequences of their actions.
Frank said simplicity is often the best way to deal with things. People should have the right to decide on those things that primarily affect themselves.
It shouldn’t be a law to make ingesting a substance illegal unless it causes an immediate health problem to the user or causes the user to hurt others, he said.
Brady also asked, given recent events like the violence in Baltimore that dramatically increased Monday night, if the debaters believed there was systematic racism in the criminal justice system.
Frank said he doesn’t see racism in the way laws are enforced, but it’s indisputable that the black and Hispanic populations are disproportionately prosecuted for the use of drugs.
“There’s not racism throughout the system,” he said, “but in the enforcement of the drug laws.”
He said he thinks those jailed for nonviolent charges should be released from the prison systems.
Paul likened the issue to the economy, saying laws are stricter in the inner cities where drugs are more prevalent. The residents of those urban areas are often driven to drugs due to poverty.
“You have to look at it in a context of poverty,” he said. “The laws of the inner city can be compared to the Jim Crow laws. They’re so biased.”
Paul did agree with Frank on the issue of releasing nonviolent offenders.
Brady asked Paul and Frank to close with some words of advice to the students in attendance.
Paul said the most important thing is to find something interesting you think is true, and study it — find out if you really believe it it.
“Anyone should want the liberty to do what they want and assume responsibility,” he said.
Frank told the students not to give in to the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that only big money counts and leaders don’t listen to the voters. He gave the example of net neutrality, where large corporations were against the concept, but the people banded together to get it approved.
“Don’t underestimate the power you can have if you get out and vote,” he said.