In praise of libertarian judgmentalism
As a Denver Post columnist from 2004-11, I spent a considerable amount of time writing pieces advocating the legalization of pot. So I was happy when Colorado became one of the first to decriminalize small amounts of “recreational” marijuana. I believe that the war on drugs is a tragically misplaced use of resources — an immoral venture that produces far more suffering than it alleviates. And on a philosophical level, I believe that adults should be permitted to ingest whatever they desire — including, but not limited to, trans fats, tobacco, cough syrup, colossal sodas and so on — as long as they live with the consequences.
You know, that old chestnut.
Unrealistic? Maybe. But less so than allowing myself to believe that human behavior can/should be endlessly nudged, cajoled and coerced by politicians.
So naturally, I was curious to see how marijuana sales in Colorado would shake out. According to The Denver Post, there are nearly 40 stores in Colorado licensed to sell “recreational” pot. Medical marijuana has been legal for more than a decade. Not surprisingly, pot stores can’t keep up with demand for a hit of recreational tetrahydrocannabinol. Outside Denver shops, people are waiting for up to five hours to buy some well-taxed and “regulated” cannabis. The pot tourists also have arrived. All this, The Denver Post estimates, will translate into $40 million of additional tax revenue in 2014 — the real reason legalization in Colorado became a reality.
The news coverage swung from mild bemusement to acting as if society were on the cusp of a major civil rights victory. For me, the entire spectacle seemed rather pathetic and anticlimactic.
The large part of my position on drugs is ideological, but some of it is familiarity. As a young person, I inhaled, yet today I can pull together the occasional lucid thought. I don’t feel as if I did anything immoral. I guess I’d have to say that I have acquaintance on a par with David Brooks (regrettably without the “uninhibited frolic”): “For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.”
Brooks was lambasted for opposing legalization while simultaneously admitting his own criminality and conceding that it was harmless. Now, he may be a hypocrite, but he’s no more of a fraud than those who deny the right of people to assemble and smoke “recreational” cigarettes or support any of the countless nanny-state initiatives that deny people choices.
Brooks also argues, as many others do, that decriminalization effectively encourages drug use. I think he overstates the case, considering the widespread tolerance, prevalence and accessibility of pot before legalization. But let’s not pretend that it’s completely absurd, either.
In the end, Brooks believes that pot use “should be discouraged more than encouraged.” That seems, in itself, to be a reasonable suggestion. Unreasonably, he believes that government should discourage use by force. I believe that communities, parents and individuals should discourage use through persuasion (and with something other than hysterical drug warrior rhetoric).
“Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life,” Brooks goes on to write. Jonah Goldberg put it better in column, pointing out that nonjudgmentalism is part of the secular catechism. And there are few people less judgmental about your choices than a libertarian. Fortunately, you can have it both ways. I believe prostitution should be legalized but also stigmatized.
The problem is that Americans use the state as a moral compass. For libertarians, it is often frustrating to explain that advocating the decriminalization of x is not synonymous with endorsing x. It’s often easier to rationalize away the consequences of enhanced choice than to admit it exists.
Marijuana is, for the most part, an innocuous habit. But there can be detrimental psychological and physiological effects on the human body after prolonged use. It hinders the mental capacity of people who use it excessively. No doubt, you’ve met some test subjects. Many pro-pot legalization advocates want Americans to believe that nurses, accountants, shopkeeps and local haberdashers make up the majority share of those smoking Caramelicious on weekends. Anyone who’s done any reporting on the issues understands that this is preposterous. There are hordes of stoners making a “lifestyle” choice and wasting away. Is it a huge deal? Probably not. Should we criminalize slacking? No. Is it something that should discouraged? Probably. One sort of life you choose might be better than another sort of life. One imagines that most libertarian pundits who argue for legalization have higher degrees to prove it.
If libertarian ideas are winning the day, as some of those pundits insist, then government’s getting out of the “legislating morality” business should cut both ways. The state’s decriminalizing of an activity or substance doesn’t transform that activity or substance into a moral, healthy or admirable one. And libertarians don’t have to act as if it does. You can celebrate the fact that people are free without celebrating all the dumb things those people do with their freedoms.
Like, for instance, standing in line for five hours to buy a dime bag.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.