Social & Domestic Issues

Libertarians on Drugs

Libertarianism has been one of the core components of the conservative movement at least since Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the Presidency. The basic principle of the libertarian movement (as opposed to the party) is as easy to understand as conservative in nature: that people should be allowed to make any decision they want unless it is unduly harmful to someone else. This philosophy is a logical extension of Adam Smith’s observations on economic freedom.

Smith’s great insight was that in economic transactions, people tend to make decisions based on self-interest. Any transaction voluntarily agreed upon must then be assumed to serve the self-interest of both parties involved, else it would not have been agreed to. Thus, government should relax and let people work things out for themselves. Each person is a far better judge of his own self-interest than any bureaucrat in London or Washington, and the greatest good for the greatest number is to be had simply by letting the greatest number decide for themselves. A million small decisions work better than a single grand plan, however clever.

This same principle has great application outside economics as well. Most folks, given choices on how to live, will choose the way that best suits their rational self-interest. That’s the power of freedom combined with reason.

I find it strange then, that the libertarian position on illegal drugs (probably the single position for which the movement is best known among the general population) is that drugs should all be legalized and people allowed to do as they see fit with everything from marijuana to heroin. The seemingly libertarian logic being: “Who are you to tell another adult what they can choose to put into their own bodies?”

The reason I find this logic strange for libertarians is that it just plain ignores the fact that addictive drugs remove both the basic prerequisites for a Smith-style freedom-based efficiency: choice and reason. A drug addict has no choice and is the very definition of unreasonable.

Yet according to those that have spoken most loudly from a libertarian perspective on this issue, the problem of drug addiction today is entirely artificial. Were we to simply declare all drugs legal, then market forces and free will would magically solve the problem. Again, I’m at a loss to understand this argument. We are to believe that when crack is openly marketed by Phillip Morris and Anheuser Busch that we will get less crack use? Or that when ecstasy comes with a proper dosage label and a guarantee of pharmaceutical purity it will be less appealing to prospective users? Is it possible that the junkie that today cannot exercise choice and free will to walk away from his own destruction will suddenly acquire that ability if it is codified in law?

Clearly, the mainstream libertarian position on drug use is ideology run amuck — which is not a very Smithian thing at all. Adam Smith was all about common sense.

Smith also recognized that government regulation and hamfistedness was the best way to kill any industry. The truly libertarian reasoning to decrease drug use is to get government as involved as possible in the drug trade. From there, mission accomplished in the War on Drugs. Short of allowing pushers to unionize, I can’t imagine a less efficient economic system.

A second line “libertarian” argument for legalization is that it will not reduce drug use, but will make it safer, less likely to cause crime, and allow it to produce a huge stream of tax revenue.

Dealing with the last of these claims first, since when do libertarians care about increasing taxes? When Uncle Sam is every pusher’s partner, drugs will be a fixture as permanent and creeping as public schools and agricultural subsidies. Government does not simply force the tobacco companies out of business because it relies too much on the revenue that “Big Tobacco” generates. The settlement with states Attorneys General simply solidified this predictable relationship, and explains why the tobacco companies were protected from lawsuits as part of the agreement. You can’t pay your settlement installment next year if some class action lawsuit puts you in Chapter 13. I would prefer it if “Big Coca” did not enjoy a similar symbioses with Big Government.

Second, making drugs safer is a sure fire way to make their use increase. It’s one of the core principles of the pharmaceutical industry that if your commercial ends with, “May cause nausea, cramping, fatigue, hair loss, tooth loss, liver failure, scrotal cancer and seizure followed by sudden death,” you’re not going to sell a lot of prescriptions. If crystal meth made by home taught chemists in a bathtub using lawn chemicals and sinus pills can be sold to thousands, how large is the market for properly manufactured product in a time-release caplet?

As for drug-inspired crime, it is not the illegality of drugs that causes this. It’s two root causes are 1) the irrationality of those on drugs, which will continue unabated when drugs are legalized, and 2) the lack of income that those who are worthless junkies will always have to deal with. Legalization can only solve this problem if it subsidizes drug purchases, or makes drugs so cheap that anyone can afford a massive addiction just with spare change gathered at intersections. And it is a well-established economic fact that lowering price can stimulate demand. Harmful drugs should be expensive.

This debate would be just an intellectual exercise except for the fact that many of the intellectual lights of the libertarian movement waste considerable breath and ink decrying the prohibition of drugs, and that one of the nonstarters of the libertarian party growing into a real movement is people’s correct perception that libertarian control of drug laws will result in drive-thru drug-marts popping up at the state line. As much as many small government fans would like to see a viable third party arise, it cannot be one that thinks that free will and reason can govern the use of mind-altering addictive drugs.

On some issues, libertarians make perfect sense. But libertarians on drugs are simply irrational. Biochemistry trumps free will every time.

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