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Friday, December 04, 2009  

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Use
UPDATED: some context added

Whether to legalize marijuana, or to simply downgrade the priority of enforcing laws against it, is a classic test case for the relationship between the personal and the political. If you think marijuana is a relatively low-harm indulgence or even (gasp) if you enjoy it yourself, you're likely to consider laws against it an intolerable infringement on freedom even if you are generally in favor of a pretty big government role in regulating other stuff. On the other hand, if you think pot is for stupid hippies, or if you associate the drug with laziness, disorder, and jam bands, your general libertarianism will likely falter.

So Andrew Sullivan writes another in his long series on political-philosophy-as-self-diagnosis, this one called Leaving the Right. Screen out the narcissism (as a general rule, nobody really cares about a writer's individual scruples, so the construction "I cannot support" adds little or nothing to an argument) and you've got something worth reading, I think, including the line: "I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs."

Well, TAE didn't care for this:

I just wish I could find someone who didn't smoke pot (nor wanted to) that was for the legalization of it. My gut feeling is that there are almost zero people of that inclination.
...
I love reading Sullivan, he's a good conservative and smart about politics. But his pro-pot stance befuddles me, and I can only surmise that he is pro-pot because he enjoys it personally.

I pushed back on this a little in comments, and he followed up in a separate post. I will happily cop to having been a social pot smoker for a couple years during college, and maybe once a year for a few years after graduating. This distinguishes me from few people I knew in those years, most all of whom were at least ordinarily accomplished and responsible despite smoking a little, or even a lot. It's been some years since I indulged, and I don't care to. I had a few unenjoyable experiences with it, and anyways I always preferred good, old-fashioned, liver-destroying alcohol when I was looking for an intoxicant. I won't say that I would never consume it even if it were legal, but I'm certainly not in favor of liberalizing marijuana laws because I've been on a years-long responsibility jones. But funnily enough, in this case I'm on the libertarian side of the issue and TAE takes the more paternalistic position: "I'd love to say "sure, legalize pot...no one will abuse it" but the fact is that a lot more people would have access to it that are weak-willed than currently do while pot is an illegal substance."

Now even I have a stronger presumption in favor of personal freedom than this. Sure, there's a public policy dimension to this: substituting marijuana for binge-drinking, at the margin, would make us a safer and healthier society in a lot of ways. The "war on drugs" has been a costly failure, as almost everyone who looks at the issue acknowledges. And there's a status-quo bias when it comes to changing the laws. We take for granted the dangers we already accept (TAE is a big fan of unregulated sales of guns, which kill more people in a year than marijuana will kill before the end of time) in contrast to those we are asked to accept in the future.

But on issues like this, these arguments matter less. The burden of proof is not on people who want to be free to do something, it's on people who want them to be put in jail for doing it. That people will make bad decisions is not, in itself, an argument for restricting freedom. If it were, it would radically restrict our freedom in almost every area. A lot of considerations come into play when people start sorting things into acceptable and unacceptable risks. Handguns, heroin, nougat, The Real Housewives of Scottsdale--different people will have different ideas about what constitutes too great a threat to our public health to be allowed. But in every case, I think we'd ask the people proposing (or upholding) a restriction to prove that the risks are too great.

That's not a libertarian view, strictly speaking. It's something that comes from the classical liberal tradition that imbues most of our political ideologies in America today. It's a worldview with limits, to be sure, but it serves us pretty well in the main.

...adding my own two cents: the idea of a limited decriminalization of marijuana, in which small-scale producers, distributors, and consumers are pretty much left alone, has a lot of appeal. Drug policy should be focused on the violence and public disorder attendant on some aspects of the drug trade anyway. A strictly limited legalization like you have in Amsterdam could work, too. I would be very wary of a full-scale legalization--the kind of policy that appeals to some facing empty state coffers--because I don't like the corporate power and state tax dependence that flows from even relatively harmless vice. But these are policy questions, not matters of principle.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:34 AM
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