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What do the drug problem and the space program have in common? Here’s a hint: the common element is something that policymakers must keep in mind when considering each issue, and without which they will inevitably fail to make correct policy decisions. The war on drugs and the exploration of space will both be failures, if we overlook this one-shared aspect.

If you guessed that both have to do with getting high, you’re on the right track. But there is more to this answer than an obvious pun. The American space program and the apparently very terrestrial struggle to reduce and eliminate the abuse of drugs are both policy issues before the American people that will not be handled rightly unless we approach them with an understanding of what it is that really elevates human beings. Let me explain, beginning with the space program.

If we are going to make the correct decisions about whether and how to pursue a national agenda of space exploration, we should be clear on the reasons for that exploration. Why would we want to do such a thing as explore space? And why would we want to make it a national project, something we do as a people?

We should begin by remembering that the opening up of the frontiers, including such efforts as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, were not privately funded. As a matter of historical fact, it was considered by our Founders to be one of the important functions of government to explore this great continent and to produce the maps that would be necessary for citizens to move in to build lives of dignity and liberty through their wise stewardship of nature’s great resources.

The frontier adventure is usually described as an expansion, but it could just as well be described as an elevation, as an uplifting of the American people to a new vision of the kind of life that is possible for a people resolved to be free and just. When our forebears “raised their sights” and went west, they were pursuing the natural next step in the great project of nation building that the founding of America had begun. And the federal government’s measured steps to prepare for and encourage this step were farseeing and wise.

Today, the vast frontier of space sits on our doorstep, and we have developed the technology to explore and make use of it, and to enable our citizens and the people of the world to do the same. We should sustain our commitment to develop and make use of that great frontier. In doing this we will be following in the inspiring and visionary footsteps of our Founding Fathers, not only for the sake of this country, but for the sake of humanity.

The importance of such endeavors has a spiritual component which may be becoming obscure to us. As a people, as a race, we need continually to have before us the truth that our potential is best realized when we are challenging ourselves to reach for those things that transcend our everyday needs and desires and passions. We need to remember that we are at our best when we commit ourselves to the kind of endeavors that have significance, not only for us but for future generations. This is why, for instance, the marriage commitment makes better people. It is why we will be a better nation if we choose to devote time and treasure to the space program.

The exploration of space invites us as a people to raise our sights, to send our bodies and our technology higher in a way that lifts the eye of the soul higher as well. The exploration of space, and the development of the science and technology necessary for it, may have sufficient motivation simply in the more materially “grounded” benefits to economy and national security that will follow. But the spirit of our national project in space transcends these motives, just as the vision of westward expansion included and yet transcended the material and political motivations supporting it. We should explore space, together as Americans, because we rightly sense that we will be at our best, and pursuing the highest things, when we strive together to do this great thing. Space exploration has been, and can again be, a natural national high.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, what about the war on drugs? The first thing that we should understand is that we’re not dealing with a material problem. We’re dealing with a moral problem.

When I was born in 1950, America didn’t have a huge plethora of laws dealing with all kinds of drug use and abuse, and yet we also did not have an enormous drug problem in this country.

The reason that we have proliferated drug laws is that the fundamental discipline that prevailed in our society when I was born has broken down. And I think sometimes we get all caught up in discussing what steps we will take to deal with the consequences of this problem rather than dealing with the problem itself. The problem is very simple; self-government cannot be sustained without self-discipline. And the drug problem is a symptom of that.

We proliferate laws. We even have started to invade property rights and do other things that are tearing down our system of liberty. Why? Because we are out of control. Because we are a people who do not understand that if you enslave yourself to chemicals, you cannot be free.

The root problem is that as our society has forgotten the true nature of happiness, we have increasingly failed to convey to our young people the reliable means of pursuing it. The fact that happiness is the result of a life of disciplined pursuit of justice and the fulfillment of duties, including duty to God, is simply never proposed to many of our young people. But the desire for happiness will not be denied, and so they pursue it in ways ill-chosen and destructive.

The obvious solution stares us in the face, but we don’t want to implement it because it requires that we look at the truth about our situation. We don’t have a drug crisis. We have a moral crisis. We have a crisis that goes to the heart of the question of whether or not we’re a people that still acknowledges that there is a difference between right and wrong which we must pass on to our children and enforce, even if it means that we, ourselves, must accept inconvenience. And above all we have allowed ourselves to doubt that fidelity to the difference between right and wrong is the path to personal and national happiness.

When we face that reality, then we will have solved the problem. But how do we face it? Fundamentally, there is only one solution to a moral problem, and that is to turn the attention of our souls from the evils that tempt us to the good that will draw us higher, and then faithfully to follow that good. Our young people will continue to turn away from the road of self-discipline until they sense again, with the unfailing discernment of the young, that their elders are “high” on virtue, and that the apparently old-fashioned paths of justice, diligence, and service to others are in fact the ways to a happiness that makes life worth living.

Our ancestors understood that when the human soul is not directed to concerns higher than the pleasures and discomforts of the moment, it withers and dies. They understood that great human striving — from the prosecution of enterprises of exploration to the ceaseless struggle to be a good man, a good parent, a good spouse — is possible only in pursuit of a vision of something higher and better, for which a man can in good conscience and fair hope resolve to spend himself. And they understood that without such a vision, the people will perish.

The pursuit of happiness is found wherever there is human life — from the launch pads of NASA to the striving of an addict to go straight. Government policy conceived in the light of a true understanding of human dignity will aid that pursuit; policy which treats human beings only as pleasure seeking or calculating animals will not. At their best, our laws and common endeavors can be like the maps of Lewis and Clark, raising the vision of this entire people to a land of happiness open only to those willing to submit to the discipline of seeking to be good.

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