Sunday, February 04, 2007

War on Drugs: A Libertarian Exchange

In response to the article “The Drug War as a Socialist Enterprise” by Milton Friedman:

Leslee Kulba wrote:

Milton Friedman is a brilliant economist. I agree with Milton Friedman that certain items, like atomic bombs, do not belong in the free market. If for no other reason than lack of education, I consider myself to be a free marketeer. However, it is my understanding that the free market assumes certain gentlemen’s agreements. For example, one should be entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labors.

I would venture that the gray areas in which government ought to stay out of the market are more extensive than Friedman expressed. Friedman also advocated legalized prostitution. I cannot find a place in my conscience to legalize vice. Mafiosi put prices on peoples’ heads. I suppose that would make people a commodity. A totally free market would leave government out of the regulation of the hit-man market and allow people to shop around for the best rates for bumping people off. Fortunately, government steps in and upholds the pronouncement of a higher authority: Thou shalt not kill.

We might also wager that he who is slippery and can run fast has a market advantage. Thievery is an art, and kleptomaniacs also are entitled to the fruits of their labors. Maybe arson could be added to the mix if we want to say that you can destroy as freely as you can create. Where do you want to draw the line?

The difference between murder, theft and arson and drugs and alcohol is, of course, that drugs and alcohol do not usually cause sudden death or sudden property devastation. They act more subtly. Recreational users become hardened addicts slowly, and addicts manipulate by pulling heartstrings. We all know the stories.

The drug problem is a leviathan, and I don’t want to stand in the way of anybody who wants to even raise a finger to try to make something better somewhere. Yet legalization never sat well with me. I am totally supportive of decriminalization. But I cannot go along with urging society to believe it is OK to experiment with drugs, OK to party with drugs, OK to sink so far deep into your habits that you get desperate and start using up the resources of your friends and family until you have nothing to turn to but people who are going to turn you into the police for stealing sometimes violently to support your habits. To me, this would be like the dragon slayer plucking the eyebrows of the beast. I like to attack root causes – that is, if I had the volition to be more than an armchair philosopher.

As a died-in-the-wool libertarian, I often ask myself what is so liberating about doing drugs? I live in mortal fear of putting my faculties at the mercy of a mind-altering substance. That would be more shackling to me than being detained by the police. I could sit in a cell and enjoy the freedom to theorize. I can be poor and enjoy the freedom to be resourceful. How can one be free to choose after he impairs his judgment?

I find it interesting that I could never understand how most people on this list were of the opinion that government had to intervene in illegal immigration issues when I was opinion that market forces were going to speak louder than any wall or get-tough-on-the-nonvoters legislation.

As always, this missive is not solely a flaunting of my ignorance, but a plea for enlightenment.

Tim Peck:

Enlightenment? I am happy to provide it.

First, you conflate two aspect of prohibition, using the one to justify actions against the other; namely, egregious violations of others' individual rights and mere bad personal behavior.

It may be true that certain personal choices are harmful, unhealthful and self-abusive. In these cases it may be appropriate to apply persuasive moral instruction. Someone who is overweight may be inclined to have a second piece of pie after dinner and you may be inclined to dissuade them on account of their stated desire to diet. In that case, you are justified in your attempts to help your friend. If, however, you call the police, have your friend arrested and put in jail and the restaurant closed then you are not justified in your approach to problem solving.

On the other hand, if your obese friend becomes violent due to the additional caloric intake and begins attacking other patrons, then you would be justified in resorting to the police power of government to put things right. In this case, your friend has violated the individual rights of another.

These same examples can also apply to other vices, including the personal use of chemical substances of which the government currently disapproves. You attempt to point out "the difference between murder, theft and arson and drugs and alcohol." The difference in these activities that you miss is that murder and theft violate another's rights; the use of drugs and alcohol does not. You may not have any use for illicit drugs or legal alcohol, but your personal life choices should not be universally enforced by the force of government. In a free society, you have the freedom to seek or avoid activities that may be harmful; that is because you own yourself and are not owned by the state. If the state owns you then it can prescribe all manner of behavior, including drugs, food, books, movies and even thoughts. If you claim to be a slave then so be it. Turn over every thing personal to the decision-making power of the government and be done with it. Hell, wear a badge or tattoo. But leave me out of it!

You also suggest that perhaps thieves and kleptomaniacs should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor; as though this was logically consistent with repealing prohibition. The problem here is that thieves and kleptomaniacs have profited from the violation of another's rights. Protection against the violation of individual rights is the sole purpose of instituting governments. This is explicitly declared in the Declaration of Independence: "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men;" deriving as it does from the Lockean view of individual liberty.

Secondly, if the war on drugs has been a success, I would be very happy to hear of it. The great trouble and expense in this quixotic national pursuit has, to my limited observation, been of no value whatever in achieving its stated goal. In fact, the reverse seems to the case. There is more drug use now than two decades ago. It is more pervasive, more expensive, more available, more lucrative, and more likely to put other innocents at risk of criminal harm. I would much rather use the time, money and prison space for actual criminals rather than in rounding up people whose personal behavior you don't like for fear that somewhere, someone is having fun.

Regarding prostitution, you imply that a voluntary transaction between two freely choosing adults reduces people to a commodity and that this is somehow unfortunate. Not entirely true, in my view. Anyone who works for a living uses their labor as a commodity in the free market for voluntary trade in exchange for compensation. If I own myself, then I am free to contract my labor with others in a voluntary and mutually beneficial agreement.

Again, the calls for government interference in the marketplace are as odious and immoral in the conduct of so-called "vice" as in any other victimless enterprise. If individuals agree amongst themselves to go fishing, operate a taxi service or have sex, what business is that of yours--or anyone's? Neither you, I, or the government should have anything to say about it. This is the true libertarian view.

Regarding the issue of illegal immigration, it is true that the free market should determine private business enterprise. However, a sovereign nation has the right to permit or deny migration within its legal boundaries. The denial of surreptitious and illegal migration is consistent with upholding individual rights. As individuals, we voluntarily delegate our power of self-defense to the government. It is the government's responsibility then to secure our national defense and this includes protections against illicit invasion in the cover of dark. I support streamlining the legal immigration process while at the same time strengthening barriers to willy-nilly migration on the invader's terms. This, I believe, is also consistent with a libertarian view.

Your, or anyone's, rebuttal is welcome.

Leslee Kulba:

> The enlightenment feels more like a
> lampshade. Could you address the point
> I tried to make that he who partakes
> becomes the slave of the chemical?

Tim Peck:

First, that may very well be. The above is not a claim that I have specifically denied. In fact, I have not said that drug use is laudable in any sense other than that it is a personal behavioral choice that requires no government force to prohibit and individuals should have the freedom to make choices that may even be harmful to them. I have only said that the state has no natural or constitutional authority to intervene in this matter. And further, that to do so is itself a violation of the individual rights that governments are instituted to protect.

Second, the blanket claim that the use of government-prohibited drugs is universally slave-making is simply inaccurate and overstates your case. I have known many people who like to use drugs, who like to smoke cigarettes and who like to eat chocolate, pork chops and ice cream, and while they may have a degree of weakness of will-power I would not characterize any of them as slaves. Most people who enjoy the simple pleasures of whiskey, wine, sex, tobacco, pain killers, marijuana, or twirling in place are no more slaves than anyone else who chooses not to indulge in these pleasures.

It is true that certain chemical substances induce not only desire, but also cravings and addictions, and that is unfortunate. People should be careful about those things. Chronic use and addiction of harmful drugs can indeed render a person a slave of their habits. This is a condition that demands the best efforts of family, friends, neighbors and medical professionals to remedy. But this in no way justifies using the power of the government to promote good behavior, as you see it. Non-offending personal behavior is simply not the business of police power.

Owning myself and having the natural right to use drugs, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, prostitute myself, or commit suicide should not suggest that I promote any of those activities. I only oppose the establishment of legal prohibitions against these activities.

Jerry Orr wrote:

A great read on a serious subject!

Let me chime in with a dual response to Tim:

1. My standard reaction to libertarian theory is that it makes no allowance for those who, unlike Tim, Leslee and Milton, do not possess the mental acuity to decide what is in their best interest. In this category I place my granddaughters, ages 8, 9 and 28, as well as those under chemical addiction. (I might add those addicted to some political philosophies, too, but that's for another time.) Friedman rejects all forms of government "Paternalism," but I'm sure he would not leave the mentally deficient to their own devices without some form of government protection. What this should be and how far government should intrude into family situations is more complex than I have heard the libertarians address.

2. Your fat friend provides a fine example for the principle of preemption. Suppose we know for a fact that that second piece of pie will cause Fatso to go bonkers and do violence to someone. Are we constrained to allow him to commit violence, and THEN call the police to restrain him? Or can we allow him to have the pie, but restrain him forcibly before he commits violence? Or can we just refuse him the second piece? As we have granted society the preponderant use of force, having the intended recipient of violence just shoot Fatso dead is unacceptable.

Leaving poor Fatso to his allergic reaction, let's consider alcohol. We know that a certain percentage, not all, but a high percentage of people lose their ability to drive safely with a blood alcohol level above a certain value. We can wait till an accident occurs and then give additional penalty to those who blow above 0.11. Or we can give the police authority to stop and test anyone driving erratically. Or we can have roadblocks and test everyone. Or we can insist that every car have a breathalyzer on the ignition switch. Each action combines a risk and an inconvenience to innocent parties (no pun intended.) It seems to me that the libertarian inclination against government "paternalism" or preemption leads to the greatest risk to innocents--let the violence occur, and then penalize the offender. Our society has evaluated many drugs as more dangerous to innocents than alcohol. Most of them are illegal to posses without a prescription. A few are illegal to posses at all. It is incumbent on those who advocate unlimited drug access to persuade us that the impact on society as a whole, especially on the innocents, will be acceptable, not merely that the imbibers can be held responsible for their behavior.

Again Jerry Orr wrote:

> Each action combines a risk and an inconvenience to innocent
> parties (no pun intended.) It seems to me that the libertarian
> inclination against government "paternalism" or preemption leads
> to the greatest risk to innocents--let the violence occur, and
> then penalize the offender.

Tim Peck:

I would say let the freedom occur and penalize the offender. I don't quite understand the alternative.

Paternalism and preemption are two different concepts. The one is arrogantly presumptuous and the other can properly express the resolve of self-defense. If one can with 100% certainty determine that eating pie will result in physical assault then I suppose one has some basis for preemption. Outside of that certainty, I have difficulty sending in the government to proscribe every conceivable risk.

The notion that a suspect must be proven guilty has been the prevailing standard of law for some time, except for when a Republican president suspended habeas corpus.

All choices in life must consider the cost and the benefit. There are few activities that incur no costs and make up the balance in pure benefit. The question is where to draw the line.

We can have roadblocks, or sobriety check points, at every intersection and this will prevent some accidents, injuries and deaths. In most cases, this will only result in inconvenience, insult, invasion of privacy and unwarranted trespass.

Applying the concept of prior restraint to individual behavior could solve some problems. Indeed, a great many crimes could be prevented by imprisoning everyone on the premise that most people will commit some kind of crime, misdemeanor or indiscretion in their lifetime. But this would represent a grave error, in theory and in practice.

Happily, this is not the standard in a free society. Instead, we should err on the side of liberty.