Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Libertarians and Drugs

Please note: I am not the Devil

Over at the Orphans of Conservatism Liberty we have a post entitled “Fantastic news for the drug-addled Libertarian!” Any such title was always going to get my attention, and this was merely compounded by the fact that the contents of the article appear to advocate the failed war on drugs – a somewhat bizarre position for a website nominally devoted to the maximization of liberty (or at the very least lamenting the ongoing incursions on our freedom).

But now is not the time to get lost again in the wider debates around the war on drugs and surrounding issues such as legalisation of narcotics for adults. Rather, I wanted to dwell on this paragraph:
And now I must prepare to be verbally flayed by those who just know that they can handle it, and whose philosophy is atomised freedom: the solitary individual, totally disconnected from all others, making his choices in a moral and cultural vacuum and unaffected by his physiology or subconscious compulsions.
Ignoring the pathetic opening that appears to acknowledge the controversy that this sort of post was always going to provoke in a sort of “pity poor me” kind of way, this paragraph seems to create an image of the libertarian that I cannot recognise – despite being a libertarian myself. Firstly, liberalisation of drug laws (including legalisation of narcotics) is not simply a hedonistic objective; it isn’t about what I – or anyone else – can handle. Not least because it would be a very naïve (or stupid, if you will) person who believes that they can handle repeated toots on the old crack pipe. Rather, the issue is one of freedom – of giving adults the right to choose for themselves what they put into their own bodies. And I have to say that any sort of liberal approach to this issue is going to favour less regulation rather than more – and will always turn its back on any rhetorical war on inanimate substances.

However it is the notion of “atomised freedom” and the subsequent portrait of someone with a liberal approach to drug use and regulation that bothers me the most. Here, the author of the post not only misses the point, but misses that point as it sails right in front of their eyes while singing “hello! Hello! I’m the point! Look at me!” Indeed, I am tempted to use this paragraph as the very definition of a straw man argument when I am next teaching first year undergraduates on how not to write a shit essay.

Put simply, I have never come across anyone who is “totally disconnected from all others” and existing in some sort of solipsistic vacuum. Not even those tedious Rand devotees completely remove themselves from engagement with others – even if that engagement is simply trying to best others. Nor have I come across anyone who truly believes that they are unaffected by their “physiology or subconscious compulsions”. Indeed, it is difficult to identify anyone other than a young child who might reflect this sort of description. Sure, this sort of straw man caricature may aid the author’s argument by painting the advocate of drug liberalisation as a sort of amoral creature centred only on the self, but in creating this tangibly false caricature the author severally damages their own argument.

Because you do not have to be an extreme individualist to oppose the war on drugs. Nor do you have to be terminally naïve about your own physical and mental limitations. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to look at the society around you and observe that, well, the war on drugs has not worked and has not achieved any of its objectives, really – and therefore some sort of alternative approach makes sense if one can step away from the “grrr drugs are evil” mindset for a couple of minutes. It is also perfectly possible to think that if cocaine was legal then I, as an individual, might be tempted to take more of it despite the effect it has on me physically* – and then choose not to do so for precisely this reason.

And that is at the very core of the argument for the legalisation of drugs – it is about giving individuals the choice about what they consume and how they act. It allows individuals to factor in a whole host of different interests and concerns, and then decide based on those concerns – which include those around them, wider society, and their own mental and physical limitations – what they choose to consume. It is basically giving adults the choice to decide on what they want to do; in short, treating adults like adults.

In the comments section of the same post the author makes this rather telling point:
And the challenge is with us, of course. But when temptation increases, so does the number of falls.
Absolutely; the challenge does lie with us. That’s the point; to paraphrase a cliché, the more power we have, the more responsibility we have. Some people will be responsible, others less so, and some will fail outright. But that is what liberty inherently brings; the freedom to succeed, and the freedom to fail, based on what you choose as an individual. It is, of course, possible to make the case that some things are too much for the individual to cope with, and therefore they need to be restricted. However to make that case is not to advance the cause of liberty; rather, it is to fall into the trap of the sort of statist paternalism that has changed vast swathes of our population into bovine, infantile, thoughtless cretins who cannot make their own choices without the rubber stamp of the state verifying that their choices are a-ok.

*Personally I can’t stand cocaine – it makes tedious people even more tedious, but in a sort of manically tedious way. Besides, in my experience a lot of people take it to prevent themselves from getting wasted when drinking. Whereas I tend to drink precisely so I can get hammered.


Barman said...

Excellent post!

blindcyclists said...

Good point well made. Personally, I gave up on OoL when it became clear that the liberty some of the authors (by no means all, mind) were most concerned about was the liberty of paternalistic authoritarian shit bags to force their horrible, white middle class, little Englander social conservatism on the rest of us.

Great cess be unto them.

The Nameless Libertarian said...


I used to write for OoL but gave up when it became clear that it was far more conservative than I am (with a penchant for loopy conspirarcy theories as well). There are some good writers committed to liberty (Longrider being one) but the overall tone is far more focussed on conservatism than liberty. And while I might not always agree with our humble host here, I do know that he is fully committed to liberty.

Barman said...

I don't know why Longrider posts there - I prefer to read him on his own site...

The Nameless Libertarian said...

Longrider helped to form the site in the first place with James Higham, and I think he feels a sort of residual loyalty to and ownership of it and therefore continues to post on there. Plus, he's never shy in offering his own negative comments on the barmier of the posts.

northern git said...

I've mentioned this on a couple of 'libertarian' blogs,but no-one seems very willing to take up the baton.
Would somebody with a sharp mind please rip holes in lillians law?
Essentially,you get pulled over in your car and swab tested for cannabis use.If its positive,you lose your licence for a year.Cannabis takes approx. 3 months to leave your body.This is like being done for drunk driving 3 months after sipping a glass of wine.Given that it can be in your system if you were merely in the same room as a lit joint,this is a fairly crude law.

Single acts of tyranny said...

I have to agree, it was a really odd post.

Try telling 'em you shouldn't beat up your kids!

The Nameless Libertarian said...

northern git,

Thanks for the tip, will have a look into it. First thoughts are that it is precisely the sort of knee-jerk legislation that makes for crappy, illiberal laws.


Yeah, I sure that exchange on OoL about hitting children. It was one of those moments that just made me wince a bit and lament how that site increasingly resembles the more batshit crazy elements of The Daily Mail. I just can't help but think that OoL is a massive missed opportunity.


Longrider said...

...a somewhat bizarre position for a website nominally devoted to the maximization of liberty (or at the very least lamenting the ongoing incursions on our freedom).

Not really. The ethos of freedom of speech applies. Say what you like and take the flack for it.

I vigorously disagree with Sackerson's position on narcotics, however, I defend his right to make his point.

We provide the platform and have a range of contributors. So, yeah, some of 'em are conservative rather than liberal. So be it.

James Higham said...

a somewhat bizarre position for a website nominally devoted to the maximization of liberty

You've just hit the nail on the head, TNL and I see LR has made comment. At OoL, we welcome any point of view which doesn't go ad hominem - this includes viewpoints from conservatism to leftism but the connecting thread is always liberty.

Your point of view is welcome,TNL, so is Peter Hain's, providing he's prepared to run the gauntlet and get taken apart.

In that sense of freedom of expression, it is indeed a libertarian website and all admins work to keep it so.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Yes, TNL—tut tut.

You shouldn't get confused between "a libertarian website" and a website that espouses libertarian views.

It is just as valid to have those who write in favour of authoritarianism as it is to have those who actually believe in liberty.


The Nameless Libertarian said...

Oh don't get me wrong, my good people, I understand the freedom of speech side to OoL. It just creates these sort of counter-intuitive moments where a website that is devoted to liberty ends up advocating the opposite to liberty. Like in the post cited above.

James Higham said...

I hear where you're coming from, DK but what are we to do?

When someone comes along to put a counter-opinion, then as libertarians, we must let them - philosophically, we have no choice.

We would expect that viewpoint to be taken apart. That's the nature of free debate. Also, saying libertarians cannot be small c conservative is ridiculous - if we're fighting for freedoms which have been lost and are being taken away.

We are having little digs at each other here but the main issue is the State and its snuffing out of freedom. We're either for that or agin and OoL is firmly agin, as you are, as TNL is.

Anyone putting an alternative viewpoint is free to but does that, knowing what the site stands for.

The Nameless Libertarian said...

I always find Hayek's postscript to The Constitution of Liberty interesting when it comes to the question of whether a conservative can also be liberal or libertarian. My instinct is similar to Hayek's in that I don't think the two things are mutually compatible. That's not, of course, to say that conservatives and libertarians are unable to form alliances on and fight on the same side for certain issues, particularly given the constant erosion of liberty in this country and elsewhere. I just don't believe it is possible to conflate the two.

I would also point out that the vast majority of my post is dealing with a point of view that is fundamentally illiberal; it isn't a question of having a little dig against someone who I broadly agree with; on this issue, I think the author is clearly wrong and fundamentally fails to understand either what a libertarian is or the reality of the so-called war on drugs.

tomsmith said...

"far more conservative than I am (with a penchant for loopy conspirarcy theories as well)."

Welcome to libertarianism in the UK (i.e. conservatism). It is simply a continuation of the sort of shite that we saw in the UK libertarian party. Yawn

The Nameless Libertarian said...

Nope, tomsmith, libertarianism is not the same as conservatism. Try again.