As I discussed a few weeks ago on the Liberty Conspiracy radio show, it seems the number of attacks on libertarianism has been on the rise recently. This trend is most pronounced on leftist sites like Salon.com, but another example appeared over the weekend in The Dallas Morning News. This one was written by conservative talk show host Mark Davis, and is titled, “Fellow Libertarians, You Lose Me on Weed.”
When I was living in North Texas, I listened to the Mark Davis show regularly when he was on WBAP. He’s a very entertaining personality, and typically makes reasonable points (excluding this most recent column, of course). And unlike some of the Salon.com pieces I’ve read over the past few years, I do not consider Mr. Davis’s article an “attack” on libertarianism, but rather a gentle chiding from a conservative who is broadly sympathetic to libertarian ideas. And I completely understand his reservations about the libertarian position on the drug war – this is the very issue that kept me away from libertarianism for quite a long time. It wasn’t so very long ago that I would have agreed wholeheartedly with his article, but I have since come to look at the issue in a different light. I doubt I’ll change Mr. Davis’s mind with this little blog post, but hopefully others may glean something from the attempt.
The first problem I have with the piece is the title, “Fellow Libertarians, You Lose Me on Weed.” By using the term “fellow,” Mr. Davis implies he is something that he is not, and the qualifier should be struck altogether for a less misleading headline. He is not the only one to have ever done this – a number of people have labeled themselves as libertarians when it suited their non-libertarian purposes. But when anyone from Mark Davis to Bill Maher to Glenn Beck can use the same term to describe themselves, it can cause quite a branding problem for us dyed-in-the-wool libertarian types.
The confusion carries over into the first sentence of the article, which states,
“Libertarians are an odd bunch. I should know, because on many issues, I am one.”
This is a muddled statement. Unlike conservatism or liberalism, libertarianism is not simply a grab-bag of miscellaneous policy positions. Libertarianism is the acceptance of the principle that it is wrong to aggress against others to achieve one’s objectives, and the degree to which one is consistent in its application. Granted, there’s a continuum problem here – libertarians themselves disagree about how far the principle can be applied, but the principle is the starting point nonetheless. The policy positions flow from that, so it doesn’t make much sense to claim that one is a libertarian on this issue or that issue. A better way of restating Mr. Davis’s opening might be, “Libertarians are an odd bunch. I should know, because I agree with them on many issues, even though I am not a libertarian myself.”
He then proceeds to identify the two major areas in which libertarians will forever find themselves outside the mainstream: our “isolationist” foreign policy, and marijuana. Since the bulk of the article is about the latter, I will be brief in my response to the former. Libertarian foreign policy is not isolationist. Libertarians generally favor the Jeffersonian approach of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” We oppose initiating force against those who have not first aggressed against us (again, being consistent with the core principle). The term “isolationist” is a silly smear used to squelch debate, and does not merit much in the way of rebuttal. As someone once said (on a t-shirt, no doubt), calling libertarians isolationists because they oppose invading other countries is like calling your neighbor a hermit because he doesn’t break into your house and smash up all your furniture.
But enough on that for now. Let’s move on to the article’s main topic, which is the drug war (particularly as it relates to marijuana prohibition). Why the libertarian position on prohibition should keep us outside the mainstream as Mr. Davis claims is never really explained. This strikes me as a bit odd, given that it is the thesis of the article. Since many polls show the majority of voters actually agree with the libertarian position, it is Mr. Davis who is outside the mainstream, so surely the burden of proof to show why libertarians should be excluded from polite conversation is on him, not us.
“Many in the pot-legalization crowd use an on-ramp intended to appeal to lovers of liberty — the notion that we should be free to do whatever we please, as long as we do not violate the rights of others.”
Correct. That’s the principle of non-aggression, and it is the very definition of liberty.
“But it is the job of any responsible lover of liberty to know that a stoned society is everybody’s business. It is the height of absurdity to suggest that the issue goes no further than some guy in his living room twisting up a doob with some Allman Brothers on his iPod.”
There are a couple of fallacies tied up in these two sentences. The first, of course, is the idea that anyone is still listening to the Allman Brothers on anything other than an eight-track – if you’re going to stereotype people, at least do so in a way that people born after 1962 can relate. The second fallacy is that it is the job of liberty lovers to mind everybody’s business. This is the job of nanny-state types like Michael Bloomberg (whom no one would confuse as a libertarian). No, the job of liberty lovers is to maximize the scope of personal liberty – even if some people choose to exercise that liberty in ways we disapprove. To argue otherwise is to make a mockery of the very notion of liberty – the freedom to act only in ways Mark Davis approves is no freedom at all (regardless of how wise or benevolent he might be).
“In an age when the very value of work is under attack from various factions, the last thing we need is waves of experimentation with a drug that tells users to sit down and turn on the TV for six hours.
The first reply from the pot legalizers is that alcohol use has a downside as well. This is true, but irrelevant. As human history unfolds, there are various substances we will permit and various things we will ban, all based on case-by-case evaluation of benefits and detriments.
If they tell you pot is “safer than alcohol,” offer a choice of whom to hop in a car with: someone who’s had one beer or someone who’s smoked one joint.
Most people consuming alcohol are not looking to get drunk; everyone smoking pot is looking to get high. I know my friends and I surely were when we shamefully did our part to keep Colombian cartels in business 30-plus years ago.
Anyone may favor legalization, but don’t swallow any false tales of its harmlessness.”
This is mainly straw-man stuff. I’ve never heard any serious proponent of decriminalization claim that marijuana is “harmless.” It’s a drug, after all. I’m no expert, and the medical research on marijuana relative to alcohol is beyond the intended scope of this post, but fortunately for us harmlessness is not the standard to which adults in a supposedly free country are usually held – if it were, then we would not only restrict or prohibit marijuana, but also alcohol (and how’d that little experiment work out?), tobacco, sugar, salt, lack of proper exercise, and maybe even the Allman Brothers. That might make the nanny-staters happy, but it’s hardly the stuff of a free society.
And I find it more than a little hypocritical when people like Mark Davis and President Obama and former Presidents Bush and Clinton admit (with varying degrees of candor) to engaging in the very activity that they claim should be considered a crime. Granted, people may reasonably change their opinions over time based on new evidence, but it’s remarkably difficult to imagine that any of their lives would have been better had they been arrested for smoking marijuana in their youth. That is, had they suffered the same consequences they now wish to inflict on others for doing the same thing.
“And don’t let anyone deny the waves of new users we will see. There is precisely one thing standing between millions of people and their first bong hit: the law. Most people do not want to break the law. It takes a special level of foolishness to suggest the removal of that obstacle will not bring wide experimentation.
That will in turn bring an erosion of the second obstacle: its cost. My libertarian love of free markets teaches that broad legal availability of pot will bring sizable price drops that will make it easily available to all kinds of stupid young adults who have heard only the appeal of getting high.
‘Tax it and regulate it,’ supporters say, as if that offers benefits to outweigh the cost of another intoxicant allowed into our midst. We all know alcohol abuse has a deep price. That is actually part of my objection to legal pot in an era filled with too much drunkenness and pill-popping.”
And here I don’t know that I have any substantial disagreement. Legalization could very well lead to an increase in marijuana use (although actual empirical data indicates it’s led to a decrease), but given the fact that 40% of American adults have already tried the stuff despite its illegality, I’m not sure how significant the marginal increase would really be.
“Ask any advocate to name one societal benefit of the legalization of more drugs. They cannot.”
This statement is simply false. Blatantly so, in fact. There is no way any informed writer could make this claim with a straight face, and frankly it’s beneath Mr. Davis to do so here (from what I recall of his radio show, he’s usually better than this). Many societal benefits would come with the legalization of more drugs, not the least of which would be fewer dead people, fewer otherwise productive Americans in prison, greater respect for the rule of law, and more privacy in our financial dealings (to name but a few). As David Boaz wrote in his book, Libertarianism: A Primer,
“…the most important thing states could do to reduce crime is to legalize drugs. Our current policies drive drug prices sky-high and make drug dealing seem the most profitable and glamorous option available to many inner-city youth. Given the poor quality of inner-city schools, many young people see their options as ‘chump change’ at McDonald’s, welfare, or selling drugs. But, like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, drug prohibition guarantees that drugs will be sold by criminals. Addicts have to commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable (and safer) if it were legal. Dealers have no way of settling disputes except by shooting it out. If drugs were produced by reputable firms and sold in liquor stores, fewer people would die from overdoses and tainted drugs, and fewer people would be the victims of prohibition-related robberies, muggings, and drive-by shootings. If there are any limits to the state’s power over individuals, surely the state should not be permitted to regulate what we can put into our own bodies. Drug prohibition is both repressive and counter-productive.”
It is one thing to remain unconvinced by the body of work in support of the repeal of prohibition. It is another thing entirely to claim it doesn’t exist at all, as Mr. Davis does in his article.
And yet he continues.
“If they wrap their argument in the precious cloth of liberty, remind them the freedom to get high is nowhere in the Constitution, but this is: the right to aggregately pass laws to allow or disallow whatever we wish toward the goal of a better nation.
That, too, is freedom. As countless other restraints are cast off in our headlong rush toward today’s twisted sense of modern enlightenment, this is one we should rediscover.”
This is the sheerest nonsense. As anyone with even a passing familiarity of the Constitution knows, the document itself does not bestow any rights. It merely recognizes the rights that are inherent in our nature as human beings. Some of those rights are enumerated in the document, but the overwhelming majority of rights are unenumerated but no less valid. The government’s ability to outlaw whatever it wishes – no matter how popular or unpopular its dictates may be – is not freedom if individual liberty is violated in the process.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not naïve enough to think that any egg-headed notions of rights will dissuade the prohibitionists. And I don’t mean to be unsympathetic to their position – I really do get it. I was right there with them not so long ago. My personal opinion is that drugs, generally speaking, are not good.
But allow me to take a slightly different approach now.
As the father of two young children I don’t relish the idea that one day they may experiment with marijuana or other narcotics. I’m glad that when the day comes and my kids ask me if I’ve ever smoked weed or tried any other illegal drugs, I’ll be able to look them straight in the eyes and tell them honestly that I have not.
And (God forbid) should the day ever come when I find out that my children have made a different choice and tried marijuana, I can assure you that there will be Hell to pay in the Smith household that evening! But through it all I demand the right as a parent to discipline my children in the way that I see fit, from a place of love and caring as their father. I reject the state’s claim (and the claim of prohibitionists like Mark Davis) that my children should be thrown in a cage with murderers and rapists because they have harmed no one but themselves.
And this is the great divide between libertarians and statists of all stripes. Statists say, “I disapprove of what you want to do, therefore I will throw you in jail for doing it.” Libertarians say, “I may disapprove of what you do, but I respect your right to make your own decisions. It’s a free country, after all.”
Or at least it should be.