Glenn Beck on May 21 dedicated his three-hour radio program to a debate on drug policy, as he tries to square his libertarian leanings with the fact that drug use can do (harm that he's seen first-hand in his own past). While the debate focused on the legalization of marijuana, it touched on a discussion of general drug legalization.
[sharequote align="center"]Without knowledge, drug legalization looks less like freedom, and more like Russian roulette.[/sharequote]
As a group, they covered the territory you'd expect to hear: on the one hand, whether it's marijuana or heroin or alcohol, drugs can have a horrible effect on the promise and productivity of otherwise wonderful people; on the other hand, many of us believe in autonomy, self-rule, and people making (and fixing) their own mistakes in line with John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
Mill's harm principle has become a standard expression of libertarianism, and while I've got a strong affection for it, I've sometimes wondered if it has all the answers. At the very least, I wonder if libertarianism could take a different view of personal freedom that might bring it toward a different policy on drugs.
For instance, think about the libertarian stance on education.
Libertarians are usually described as being in favor of choice in education and school voucher. But these policies still involve a lot of government intervention – taxpayers with no kids fund the education of someone else's children, and government still regulates what sorts of things private schools must teach – and you'll find many libertarians who argue there should ultimately be no public schools, no government vouchers for private schools, and no mandate that children receive an education.
In other words, education isn't compulsory, kids don't have to go to school. If they do go to school, there's no government regulations about what they have to learn with respect to reading or writing, math and basic science, U.S. history or the Constitution, and so forth. And whatever school they go to, you, the parents, pay for it. Or maybe you tell your kids to pay for it themselves – after all, it's their education, not yours – so let them take out a loan and helpfully advise them to choose a lucrative career path that will pay it off.
(NORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty Images)
And this is where I, and a lot of other people, worry that libertarianism leads to the wrong conclusion. Maybe even a conclusion that isn't good for liberty.
Is somebody really free if they're unable to read and write, and therefore unable to access the wealth of learning that we've accumulated over the centuries; if they can't do simple arithmetic, and don't understand basic scientific facts (such as that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that infections are caused by tiny bacteria and viruses); if they don't understand the history of how their country came to be, how it resulted from a myriad of discussions about political philosophy, human rights and responsibilities?
Without a certain minimum education, aren't you just being set up to freely make stupid decisions? Won't completely free-market education result in parents making decisions for their kids that will result in them dying, dying before they have a chance to learn to be free, or before they're even born?
Maybe libertarianism should be reformulated, not as a theory about rights, but about consequences. That is, maybe libertarians should be pushing for government that results in the greatest amount of liberty, even if that sometimes means state intervention. For instance, government should demand that kids get an education in the name of creating more people who are truly free down the road.
Likewise, getting back to drug policy, I would argue that people are more free when they're informed about drugs. That's why, as part of our compulsory education, we instruct children about what kinds of drugs there are – stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens – along with how dangerous they tend to be. That's because, with some narcotics, taking them the first time can result in you taking a path that you're then not free to step away from, either because of addiction or death.
Perhaps people should be free to choose whether to take the risk of using drugs. And maybe the rest of us should be free to let them face the consequences of that choice alone. But shouldn't it be mandatory that people be informed about what decision it is that they're making? If someone thinks drugs are no different from bubble gum, how is it anything other than a matter of luck – not liberty or self-rule – determining whether they have a bad history with drugs?
I understand the danger of paternal decisions by government, whether they result in greater liberty or not (remember Justina Pelletier?). What else do we require parents or individuals to do and learn in the name of greater liberty? Do we demand that they learn calculus and a second language? Lose weight? Use hand sanitizer?
But, at the same time, you have to know what it is you're potentially getting into when you take cocaine or heroin. You have to know that you might be making a choice that results in an addiction that you can never (or not easily) choose to undo.
Without that knowledge, drug legalization looks a lot less like freedom, and a lot more like Russian roulette.
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