In “An Open Letter to Bill Bennett,” Milton Friedman challenges the current status of the drug war and offers a libertarian solution through careful use of literary devices to influence his audience. He uses precise word choice, creative sentence construction, and powerful rhetoric to make this piece successful. Friedman crafts his work using deliberative rhetoric that forces society to make new decisions about their future. While most of his argument is very explicit in its statements, Friedman strategically employs emotion, logic, imagery, repetition, and many other literary devices to give underlying meanings to his writing. Through meticulous textual analysis, readers can determine that Friedman is doing much more than simply writing a letter to Bill Bennett.
Without getting too much into contextual analysis, Bill Bennett is most certainly not the only audience for this letter. It was published in the Wall Street Journal in 1989, so Friedman was aiming to give this letter to a much broader crowd. He uses Bill Bennett simply as a symbol of all conservative politicians who share Bennett’s view. Friedman begins his letter with an epigraph from Oliver Cromwell. This serves to establish a strong presence from the beginning by quoting Cromwell, who was also a strong leader and changemaker during his time.
The arrangement of the essay is mindfully curated to first gain the reader’s trust and then to slowly sway them in the direction of Friedman’s viewpoints, that is libertarianism. Friedman accomplishes the first task by speaking directly to the reader and appealing to shared values. For example, when he says, “individual freedom that you and I cherish.” Friedman also goes further to acknowledge and validate “Bennett’s” opinion saying, “You are not mistaken in believing…” These tactics allow the readers to feel valued and to feel assured of Friedman’s trustworthiness. Throughout the essay, Friedman uses words with negative connotation, to create an attitude in his readers about the current status of the war on drugs. Words such as, “scourge,” “devastating,” “ruining,” “heavy,” “murderous,” “corruption,” “monopolize,” “tragedy,” “disaster,” “distorting,” and “harm” cause the reader, whether consciously or not, to feel negatively about the situation. At the end of the essay, Friedman circles back around to a familiar tone towards the reader, saying, “Every friend of freedom, and I know you are one, must be as revolted as I am…” This allows the reader to take Friedman’s side without feeling like a traitor.
Within each paragraph, Friedman employs different techniques to give a specific interpretation to the reader. In the middle paragraphs, Friedman urges his readers to look at the bigger picture rather than just drug users. He quotes, “Of the problem is demand, but it is not only demand”… “converts the tragedy into a disaster for society”… “replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.” This causes the reader to contemplate not only how drugs impact users, but how they impact society as a whole. He even analogizes it to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. By giving the conservatives more viewpoints to consider, he can refocus their beliefs in his direction.
Friedman uses a lot of repetition in sentences, but also in ideas as a whole, to force the reader into certain views about decriminalization. In paragraph two, Friedman repeats the phrase, “you are not mistaken,” but this serves as a juxtaposition to the first sentence in paragraph three where he says, “Your mistake is…” He wants to point out that the current system is making a lot of mistakes regarding drug policy. In paragraph three, the words “demand” and “illegality” are repeated three times each to ingrain the idea that demand and illegality are the root of the issue of the war on drugs. Illegality leads to a high demand for the drugs. At the end of paragraph five, the word “more” is repeated multiple times to give the impression that the problem will only continue to expand unless a different course of action is taken. The last influence of repetition is in the idea that the current plan for a war on drugs is simply a repetition of what happened back in the 1920s. Prohibition simply made the problem grow, in Friedman’s opinion, as will the prohibition of drugs.
This letter appeals to logos and pathos to help Friedman get his points across. Friedman employs logos, or logical reasoning, when discussing examples of the previous prohibition, pointing out his previous article, and explaining the invention of “crack.” This evidence is used to logically back up his idea that criminalization has not worked in the past and it will not work now. Friedman employs pathos, or emotional reasoning, throughout the letter to try and evoke sentimental, powerful feelings in the reader. Friedman appeals to kindness and mercy saying, “innocent victims,” “atmosphere of compassion,” and “bottom of my heart.” Instead of punishing drug users, he explains, society should find a way to help them with their addictions and that in turn will lower the effects of drugs as a whole. Friedman’s subtle hints to religion also concur with these themes of mercy and forgiveness for the drug users. Friedman’s biggest point of pathos, though, is his focus on the American ideals of freedom. Although never actually written in the Constitution, “freedom” has become one of those words instantly associated with America. Friedman exploits this by threatening its removal if the current plan is followed through. He quotes, “…undermining the human liberty and individual freedom”… “every friend of freedom”… “invade the liberty of citizens.” The last part is the most crucial, “invade the liberty of citizens” because it is a direct attack against one of the values Americans hold most dear. In this way, Friedman is able to both unify the readers in their American sentiments, while also changing their attitudes by use of threat and manipulation.