POSTED ON OCTOBER 10, 2007:
Legalize Recreational Drugs?
Face Off: Legalize Recreational Drugs
First, full disclosure: In my youth, I engaged in some serious substance abuse. Today I am a teetotaler, but I do not object to other people consuming alcohol. I hate smoke, but I defend the right of others to smoke. I disdain illegal drugs, but I don't feel that I have the right to impose that judgment on others.
Also, while I am a free-market economist and believe that government has gotten way too big, I am not (for a variety of reasons) a card-carrying libertarian. That having been said, I find much of the libertarian argument in favor of legalizing recreational drugs to be persuasive, although I strongly dissent from one of the major implications of the libertarian position.
The basic libertarian premise is that each person (or at least, each mentally competent adult) has the innate right to choose what he consumes. The alternative, in our democratic political system, is the present reigning belief that the majority should decide what substances everyone is permitted to put into their bodies.
I side with the individual over Big Brother on this point. This is NOT to say that I think illegal drugs are good or even harmless, NOR that the right to use drugs is unlimited. In my book, whatever momentary kicks one thinks he gets from drugs are illusory. I consider the risk-reward ratio of drug usage a losing proposition, since drugs cannot provide lasting benefits (e.g., peace, happiness, thrills, etc.) but can produce permanent damage or (with some drugs) lethal results in users.
It seems to me, though, that the risks of drug usage are more properly the province of education--a responsibility for parents, teachers, ministers, etc.--than a matter of law enforcement. However, while drug use may be none of society's business in some circumstances, when a user is driving a car in an impaired state, or doing anything that endangers others, then it is society's business, and such behavior should be proscribed.
Libertarians also make a persuasive utilitarian case for drug legalization. It is indisputable that the market prices of illegal drugs are artificially inflated, not because it is inherently expensive to produce these drugs (on the contrary, they can be produced in abundance quite cheaply) but because of the gigantic markups added to the product to pay processors and distributors for incurring risks to life (from rival gangs, willing to kill to control valuable territories) and liberty (the constant need to evade law enforcement officers).
The exorbitant prices of illegal drugs are problematical. The potential for making a fast buck lures people into the business who otherwise wouldn't give it a second thought. Also, the big money in illegal drugs has corrupted a significant minority of law enforcement personnel. To these costs of the war against drugs, we can add the huge financial burden imposed on taxpayers to pay for incarcerating hundreds of thousands of Americans whose only offense was wanting to get high.
Criminalizing drugs like marijuana and cocaine has hurt us internationally. For example, we pay South American governments to destroy their peasants' crops. This is repugnant. Mighty Uncle Sam can't stop drug demand at home, so he wages war on the livelihood of poor people abroad.
At a time when China is locking up long-term contracts for valuable resources in Latin America, the United States should be working to establish friendly relations and mutually beneficial commercial ties with all those countries. Instead, we alienate a continent's people by turning their governments against them. This can only end badly. These countries will either be ruled by anti-American demagogues or by pro-American military regimes that lack legitimacy in the eyes of their own people--an inherently unstable situation.
The Castro regime, a human rights abomination at home and a perennial vexation to the United States, has been propped up in part by the financial transfusions it has received for allowing Cuba to be used as a conduit for drug smuggling by South American narcoterrorists.
Those narcoterrorists have controlled huge swaths of territory, undermined democratic governments, and used violence against untold numbers of people. This leads to the problem I have with the libertarian drug-legalization argument.
Most, if not all, libertarians insist that drug usage is a victimless crime. It isn't. In today's world, its victims are legion. Whether they are innocent bystanders killed in gun battles between rival drug factions in American cities, or the thousands of South Americans who have been kidnapped, robbed, or murdered by the powerful drug cartels, any American who uses illegal drugs today has blood on his hands.
I disagree when libertarians try to pin all the blame on Uncle Sam. Laws criminalizing drugs don't drive drug prices into the stratosphere by themselves. The other factor is American demand for those drugs. If you want to work for the decriminalization of drugs, then do so; but until those drugs are legal, don't tell me that you have a right to use them. If you choose to use illegal drugs, your choice is helping to kill people. This is not, and never will be, your right.
Face Off: Keep Illegal Drugs Illegal
"Surgeon General's Warning: Attention Pregnant Mothers, Smoking Crack Can Be Hazardous to Your Baby's Health."
I once saw this mock warning label in a political cartoon attacking the idea of legalizing drugs. It was a wonderfully cutting illustration of what drug legalization would actually look like--flesh on a noxious concept cooked up amid gatherings of libertarians.
Practically speaking, the argument for legalizing drugs is flawed on so many levels that a full accounting here is impossible. My experience is that drug legalization is generally favored either by people who do an excessive amount of drugs or those who have never touched the stuff, the latter of whom are clueless as to why a syringe of heroin is completely different from a glass of Merlot.
Drug legalization is supported by libertarians convinced that there is no higher principle--note the word "principle," not "virtue"--than 100 percent consistency on the issue of "freedom," and who have concluded that a "free society" should have virtually no limits on freedom, save to protect life, liberty, and property.
The central error in libertarian thinking is the failure to distinguish between freedom and vice. Freedom is not about an individual's right to engage in anything, no matter how destructive to the individual or larger society.
This brings me to a defense of the conservative position against drug legalization. Libertarians like to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy because conservatives incessantly invoke freedom but apply it selectively. Quite the contrary, they misunderstand conservatism.
One of the best definitions of conservatism comes from political scientists Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey Berry, and Jerry Goldman. Conservatives, write the three professors, value freedom more than equality but would restrict freedom in order to preserve social order. Libertarians, they note, likewise value freedom more than equality, but value freedom over social order.
These definitions nicely explain where the two sides stand on drug legalization. Conservatives believe it would be bad for social order to legalize drugs. They do not want a culture where Johnny or Suzie, once they turn 18, can drive to the local smoke shop and casually light up a little reefer, or perhaps drop a couple hits of laboratory-approved LSD before catching a movie.
Mom and dad might tell the teens that this is a lousy choice, but who are they to say? After all, the government says it is legal.
Conservatives do not like what this would do to society, from the moral repercussions to healthcare costs.
There are, however, much deeper roots to the conservative objection: The conservative philosophy is grounded in and guided by eternal truths; it does not separate itself from God. It moves toward God, and it understands freedom in the way God intended freedom to be exercised.
A Biblical verse that explains this is Paul's Galatians 5:13-14: "For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"
Note the caveat, the "but" that follows, "For you were called for freedom, brothers." This is not a hedonistic or uncontrolled freedom.
The gamut of vices that libertarians want to legalize, from drugs to prostitution, means wrongly exploiting "freedom" as opportunities for the flesh. And doing so, even if the proponent of these freedoms does not imbibe in them, certainly does not serve Christ's ultimate mandate that we serve our neighbor in a loving way.
Conservatives believe that responsible freedom is a guide to successful living in a successful society. Fallen humanity ought to strive for the holiness of Augustine's City of God, not the selfish, fleshly indulgence of the City of Man. The first flawed interpretation of freedom took place in the Garden of Eden. The mistake has been repeated enough already.
William F. Buckley Jr. alluded to this understanding when he declared, "I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth." Nor, one might add, to political truths toasted up at the bong bar of the local Hash House.
Our political ancestors understood. George Washington, the father of this country, stated that self-governance by the individual is essential to self-governance by a democracy. This proper understanding of liberty is embedded in the fabric of this nation. Our earliest politicians, literally all the way to the current president, spoke of God as "Author of liberty." Listen to the words of one of our most cherished hymns: "Our father's God to Thee, Author of liberty, To thee we sing / Long may our land be bright, With freedom's holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King."
If you want to remove this from the marrow of this nation, then make your case and try to convince enough others to join you, but understand that you would be supplanting, not affirming or enhancing, the American republic as it was founded.
Conservatism and libertarianism are not simple policy disagreements but fundamentally divergent philosophies on the nature of freedom, religion, and the republic itself. Genuine American freedom is not license. A nation hurts rather than helps itself by legalizing its vices--drugs included.
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