Strategies for anti-prohibitionists, pt. 1: The neo-Puritans

People advocating the legalization of some or all drugs are really fighting more than one kind of opponent. Clarifying this may help with strategy. Some audiences need one line of reasoning, and some need another.

Before we dive in, there is one very, very important point to get out of the way: drugs are everywhere. Everywhere. People even become addicted to drugs inside federal prisons. I’m sure that drugs would be more prevalent without prohibition, but this would not mean cities would have to start dealing with drug problems that previously had not.

Another more obligatory point is that drug abuse is a bad thing, and we’d all like to see less of it. I’m not advocating people waste their lives, health, and financial resources away. Aside from the fact that this already happens, I believe that it would happen less under a legal drug system. This is an empirical point about which I could turn out to be wrong, but I think those odds are pretty slim.

So who are these different categories of prohibitionist? The first is the neo-Puritans. Many people feel that drug use is a moral evil that the state is obligated to oppose, no matter how badly the effort goes. I would guess that the vast majority of these are Christians, but the two groups are not identical.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the way that Jesus was supposed to have revealed his powers, and thereby his identity as the Messiah, was turning water into wine. Clearly the consumption of alcohol is not strictly forbidden by the Christian faith.

You might object: we’re talking about different substances here. Jesus did not turn water into heroin. And you’re right about that. But the point is that some amount of pleasant intoxication, even if small, is sanctioned in the Gospel of John. Again: intoxication is not categorically bad, at least according to John’s version of Jesus.

There are others who hold a similar position to the one just mentioned, only without the Christian basis. They’re a much smaller group and ultimately I think even their positions usually derive from the Christian one, so duking it out with them is probably not necessary. If it becomes necessary in ten or twenty years I’ll revisit this paragraph.

Alcohol and other intoxicants are different in degree, not in kind. Other people are aware of this fact. Many people who oppose drug use also oppose alcohol use, and it seems that the only reason they don’t push for prohibition of alcohol is that the US already tried that and gave it up. It’s a dead issue. So instead they hold the line where it is now, even though this is not a philosophically consistent position.

Part of the neo-Puritan view is that all use is abuse, that there is simply no way to use some drugs responsibly. Once the mystic patina is taken away from intoxicating substances, this too seems ridiculous. Clearly a glass of wine does not make one a raging alcoholic who abuses his family. Many prominent politicians sheepishly admit (or otherwise let on) to having used marijuana or cocaine or both in their youth, and yet there they are in high positions anyway. Some of them are even abusers of alcohol, such as the late Charlie Wilson. While this certainly harmed him in the long run nobody could deny he got pretty far in life as an alcoholic.

What is the strategy with this group? Delegitimizing their argument using more sophisticated expositions of what I’ve written above. There are too many true believers out there to convince them all, but around this core is a much larger group of people who accept the argument but could be convinced otherwise. The core group has so much influence because the outer group follows them, but deprived of this outer group they would become much less powerful.

There’s another way to delegitimize that position as well: even if something is categorically bad it does not necessarily follow that the state needs to prohibit it and try to enforce this prohibition. In questions of morality, if you’re not able to do wrong you earn no credit by doing right. In questions of living in the real world, you need to evaluate policies at least partially in terms of consequences. The consequences in this case are a rapid erosion of the very rights and freedoms that made America so iconic in the first place, a legal system that imprisons people at more than the rates of Russia and China put together, leading to further degradation of the economic and social culture, and, oh yeah, widespread availability of drugs anyway. There’s no shame in admitting that prohibition failed once and it is failing again. In fact, there’s only shame in refusing to admit it.

You might say that there are better arguments to use against them. I don’t doubt that. I’m only pointing out the arguments that seem to me to address their objections with the most bang for the buck. And only taking the arguments as far as needed to change the political landscape, not to convert everybody over to my position. There is almost a critical mass of legalization advocates, and all that is needed to win in the ten-to-twenty year term is a little more mass and ever so slightly less resistance to that mass.

Part 2 will continue this discussion by looking at another group.

Libertarian scholarship vs. statist mythology

Because of our own mythical political history, Americans are especially disposed to thinking of governments as ideologically motivated. There’s some truth to that: it’s easy to pick regimes in history that had a central organizing ideology. Most of these I would place in the 20th century, but not all. The Nazi regime comes to mind: although in the middle and lower levels one could easily pick out mere political opportunists, the leadership was made up of true believers. The Soviet Union is similar, although subjectively it seems like it had a smaller percentage of true believers domestically (and a higher percentage of true believers abroad).

Citizens of the United States are taught in their impressionable years how the foundation of the US was a total break from history. This idea comes from the Yankee Puritans, although the Puritans intending to found a new society that would be a light on a hill for the rest of the world to imitate would have balked at other American regions with different customs, laws, and especially religious practices being part of it, or its being a secular light in any way.

What are the effects of seeing governments this way? One ought to be a tendency to guard liberties jealously from overreach, maintaining the supposed moral purity of the system. Each new government power would be not just a small practical increase, but a symbolic leap into citizens’ private sphere and away from a sacred purpose. Early on this seems to have been what happened.* Yet as the power of the government grew slowly over time**, resistance itself become largely symbolic. (Witness the recent fury over Catholic employers having to cover birth control through their health plans. Without denying the importance of the issue to many people, what is being argued here is just crumbs compared to what could be debated.)

Once that blurry line was crossed long enough and defense of the continuity of the system was a defense of government power, we’d expect that this would make Americans more ready for war. Still maintaining that our government was in principle correct as a matter of course, foreign governments must be wrong when in opposition to ours. In any sustained conflict, foreign governments must be wrong in principle.

As I began by pointing out, there were ideologically motivated governments, and most of them were what we could objectively describe as “bad”. But the conduct of our own government hardly makes it seem ideologically motivated in a way radically different from other governments historically and currently. Nazi scientists with potentially no political motivations were used by the victorious Allies after World War II, but spies with overt political motivations were also used. One day they were enemies, and the next day they were valuable assets to be protected. It was argued that this was in the service of a greater good, but that greater good was pretty nebulous and ambiguously served. The conduct of other governments, Nazi and Soviet and otherwise, also makes this point clear. Various currents in Imperial German and Russian foreign policy continued to be major components of Nazi and Soviet foreign policy, even if the vocabulary of their articulation changed.

The point of a lot of libertarian scholarship has been to point out that the US government is not fundamentally different from other governments. It does not matter if that was the stated purpose of the scholars; viewed from above, this is the theme. True, we have a written constitution that sets us apart, but this constitution hardly has any real power in setting limits to government action. The usual rules and analytical tools are far more useful for understanding the US government than any appeal to myth. The proximate purpose of new and continuing scholarship is to convince the not-yet-convinced of this truth. The ultimate purpose is to know and generally agree on what we’re dealing with to help us deal with it better.


* I’m sure I hardly need to point out that the liberty to own slaves is not a real liberty, conflicting with and negating the valid ones. But that contradiction does not bear on this discussion.
** This is what government powers tend to do. There are exceptions, though it is an empirical question whether the most common exception is restriction of government power or large increase of government power.

From Theory and History, p. 61, by Ludwig von Mises:

The characteristic feature of a free society is that it can function in spite of the fact that its members disagree in many judgments of value.

Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl ad

Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl commercial is blowing up the libertarian internet sphere. We were upset to see the ad proclaiming Detroit a real American success story. It’s not just the bailouts; persistent government meddling has favored malinvestment in Detroit for more than half a century to the detriment of everybody else. (It’s ironic to hear Republicans accusing him of an implicit pro-bailout position when by and large they were explicitly pro-bailout and voted that way. However, internal Republican struggles are not my issue.)

We libertarians have to remember that Clint Eastwood is an incidental libertarian. He’s primarily a more or less neutral artist, and this is how he interacts with the world. Politics aside—which dedicated libertarians are rarely ever able to do, myself included—it’s a nice little story. It would be one thing if he were quoting Mises in interviews and then making this ad, but expressing libertarian sentiments here and there while still making non-libertarian movies and ads is not really that surprising.

Basically, if you feel betrayed you need to check your premises, as the saying goes.