Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Libertarian Argument for Drug Prohibition?

Good Lord! Glenn Greenwald (in the second of the two arguments he gives above) presents the worst argument I think I've ever heard for drug legalization. The conservative columnist James Taranto then turns the very same premise into an even worse argument for drug prohibition. Here is Taranto:
This columnist has some sympathy for the libertarian arguments in favor of decriminalizing drugs, but we've never felt comfortable getting fully on board with the idea. Blogress Ann Althouse points to a big reason why. She links to a video in which long-winded leftist Glenn Greenwald makes a case for legalization. Here's Althouse's description of the garrulous Greenwald's argument:
He loves the idea of pulling people into the embrace of government. When drugs are illegal, there is a "wall of fear" separating the people who are drug users from government. But if drugs are legal, "the relationship between the government and the citizenry changes for the better and becomes much more constructive." Tear down that wall, and these people who avoid the grip of government can be enfolded in endless programs. A torrent of ideas for programs spews from the mouth of Greenwald. It's such an exciting idea for lefties: There's a big untapped pool of potential clients for nurturing government services. Let the druggies come to Big Mother government. [Notice there is no counter-argument here. Ann merely restates Greenwald's argument in emotionally loaded language. Althouse is the logical equivalent of Oakland California: There's no there there.]

Libertarians might argue that this would still amount to a net gain for freedom. We suspect they would also point out that they are against both antidrug laws and Greenwaldian nanny government.

The former argument is defensible, but the latter is irrelevant. Since we live in the real world and not Libertarianland, it's unreasonable to think that legalization of drugs would not result in at least some of the sort of government expansion of the sort Greenwald desires. Thus we continue to lean against drug legalization, in part on libertarian grounds.

What's wrong with Greenwald's argument: His main premise is something like this: Drug laws make people fear the state and consequently make the state look bad: so if we do away with them, people will think more positively about the state and favor more social welfare programs. As far as I can tell, the antecedent portion of this hypothetical statement is not true. The war on drugs does not seem to make government look bad, as if we should not trust it to solve our problems. It certainly does not have that effect on the majority of citizens who favor standing drug laws. How about people who use illegal drugs? Well, most of the people I've known who use drugs are welfare statists, like Greenwald himself. In fact, even he does not draw the conclusion that government itself is an untrustworthy institution. Why does he think others would?

I noticed the same phenomenon during the Vietnam era, when I was active in the antiwar movement. Here was a government that basically kidnapped us and shipped us overseas to be shot in rice paddies -- and for no very good reason at that! Well, were the people in the antiwar movement skeptical of government? No! The leadership was mostly authoritarian statists like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.

People's political views are for the most part like their religious views: not based on facts and the requirements of logic (eg., the requirement of consistency). Their opinions about whether the price of gold will continue to rise, or whether there is any milk left in the refrigerator, or whether their employer will lay them off soon, are indeed based on reasoning. Their trust in the state, like their faith in the church, for the most part is not.

As to Taranto's reverse version of the argument, it is truly beneath contempt. After all, why would the drug war make government look bad to people, if it did? Obviously, because it is bad: current drug laws are cruel, wasteful, and unjust. In other words, he is defending these laws on the grounds that they are cruel, wasteful, unjust. What makes them good is that they are so bad.

How many things are wrong with that argument?


Anonymous said...

"most of the people I've known who use drugs are welfare statists, like Greenwald himself"

i was trying to follow the premise of your argument and then i saw it lead go this absurdly strange claim.
What kind of drugs are you talking about? If you believe in certian social programs you become a 'welfare statist' ? that's awfully closed minded and lock step of you.

Lester Hunt said...


If you believe we need more welfare state programs, you are a welfare statist. What's wrong with that? Do you have a better name for it? Is that your point? I'm open to suggestions.