In an early 2011 episode of the libertarian TV show “Stossel,” John Stossel debated Ann Coulter about ending the War on Drugs. At one point Coulter exclaimed in a tone of shocked outrage that Stossel could not possibly be serious in saying that legalization would lead to a decrease in drug abuse. Here I want to argue precisely that point.
It is possible for someone to believe that nobody should ever do drugs but also to support the libertarian proposal for ending the Drug War and legalizing all recreational drugs. The two positions are fully consistent, because both legalization and the end to widespread drug addiction will flow naturally from a psychological and philosophical shift toward a culture of more personal responsibility and away from a culture of irresponsibility. The cause of most drug addiction can be traced to irresponsibility, and irresponsibility is the psychological precondition of the welfare state. This explains why the drug subculture is dominated by the Left. We libertarians can silence some of our most vocal opponents if we undermine the alliance between the anti-drugs movement and the statist War on Drugs. This essay is one step toward achieving that goal.
I hate “recreational” drugs, and I do not think that anyone should use them. But I firmly believe that recreational drugs of every type should be legalized. I could argue that drug use is a victimless crime, or that human beings own their own bodies and have the right to do to themselves whatever they wish. I could argue that the War on Drugs is racist because it targets substances commonly used by members of racial minorities. But such arguments have been made many times before. Libertarian thinktanks such as the Cato Institute have already produced ample empirical evidence showing that legalization does not correlate with drug abuse. I have no need to repeat this evidence. My argument is different. I am going to argue that legalization, if accompanied by a psychological and philosophical shift towards a culture of personal responsibility, would lead to a long-term widespread decrease in drug abuse.
If the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs?
Legalization might cause a temporary spike in drug use, as curious Americans would be tempted to experiment. Then again, there might not be a major spike, because despite the War on Drugs, most Americans have already experimented. But even if there were a spike it would not last long. The rational, intelligent American public would soon learn, or reaffirm its current conviction, that drug use is self-destructive and stupid. Indeed, if the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs? The truth, of course, is that their arguments are too obvious to be necessary for rational people. Human goodness and happiness depend upon reasoning and reason’s ability to perceive reality accurately; mind-altering drugs impede this process.
I have seen firsthand how drugs can ruin lives and how difficult it can be to quit once someone becomes addicted. I will proudly state that within the past two years I have been able to quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Without providing any detailed horror-story anecdotes, I think that it is widely known that alcohol makes people stupid and aggressive, that cigarettes are a deadly, lung-destroying poison, that drugs cause people to lose their grip on reality, and that hard drugs are physically self-destructive and can ruin lives in any number of ways. There can be some debate about whether or not moderate, infrequent recreational drug use is a bad thing (although I think that it is), but there is no question that habitual drug abuse, in other words drug addiction, is both physically and psychologically poisonous. Drugs are a mess, and every sane person knows it.
The question, for me and other drug-haters, is: how to get people to stop using drugs? One possible approach is to outlaw them. This policy has undeniably failed, as drug use of every kind is rampant, despite the government’s best efforts to eliminate it. But if you can’t force people not to do drugs, then what can you do?
A more sophisticated and refined approach would look at the reasons why people choose to do drugs, and would fight the choice to use drugs at its source. People become drug addicts because they make a choice to be weak-willed, lazy, and irresponsible. A drug, after all, is a substance that functions by going between you and reality, so that your experience of reality becomes more pleasant than it would have been sober. The drug does not change reality; it merely changes the chemicals in your brain. It is undeniable that sober reality is the reality that objectively exists in the physical world, and drug-experienced reality is a fictional reality which does not actually exist. Therefore, in a sense, drugs are the ultimate subjectivism and solipsism, in which you choose to cope with the problems in your life not by facing reality soberly and seeking to improve it, but by choosing to change your brain so that you will not feel the pain of your problems any more, so that you won’t have to be aware of what is really going on. The tremendous appeal of drugs is their usefulness for escapism.
I suspect that addiction is usually more psychological than physical, because every human being has the power to quit doing drugs at any time if he makes a genuine choice to do so. Although there are many drugs that have withdrawal symptoms of sickness and agony, rare indeed is the drug that will actually kill you if you stop abusing it, and sobriety is beneficial to one’s health. Addiction comes from the mind, not from the body. What, then, is the nature of an addiction?
The cause of most drug addiction is pain and suffering. A drug addiction is merely a manifestation of the sadness inherent in the condition of being human. Pleasure, wealth, friendship, love, romance, and happiness are not given to humans; we have to work for them. When we make mistakes we lose what we want. The fight to be happy is difficult and messy and full of misery and horror. A person can, however, cope with the human condition responsibly by choosing to face and try to improve reality. This means that he assumes responsibility for both success and failure; he accepts the rewards for good choices and the punishments for bad ones. Alternatively a person can choose the irresponsible choice of abandoning reality, not trying to make things better, and trying to hide from or escape from sorrow.
The essence of irresponsibility is seeking to break the causal connection between the choices you make and what happens in your life. Drugs are addictive because they are uniquely useful for living life irresponsibly. They kill your awareness of your life and blind you to the punishments for your choices. Drugs are as popular as they are because everyone experiences the pain of the problems in life. But this pain evolved as nature’s way of motivating people to solve their problems.
The problem with addiction is not merely that you use the drug constantly and it damages your physical health. It is that a human being becomes ethical by thinking and making choices, and drugs make the drug user’s choices for him or her. The essence of personal responsibility is taking responsibility for your choices and not easy shortcuts around doing the work that is necessary in order to be happy. Drug addiction is fundamentally irresponsible, not merely because it is a lazy way to cope with problems, and not merely because it impairs the ability to choose, but because it is easy and tempting for drug users to blame their actions on the drug, shifting causation away from themselves. That is the core of irresponsibility.
Government acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality.
The issue of whether a person chooses to live responsibly or irresponsibly is at the heart not only of the issue of drug addiction, but also the issue of which form of government to choose. Drug use is a personal manifestation of irresponsibility, but a political manifestation of irresponsibility is socialism. An irresponsible government will hide from society’s problems and use any quick-fix snake oil it can imagine to make people think that it is doing the right thing, without ever actually addressing the causes of society’s problems and trying to fix them. The irresponsible person blames his problems on something else and looks to external saviors to solve his problems instead of taking responsibility and solving his problems himself. The modern-liberal voter looks to government to make his choices for him and give him wealth instead of creating wealth for himself. Government, in short, acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality. The more we rely upon government to live our lives for us, the more we lose control and the farther we fall from the condition of being able to solve our own problems.
Because drug abuse and big government are two manifestations of the same irresponsible attitude towards life, it is no coincidence that the drug culture is permeated by the modern-liberal or socialist Left. On the other hand, a culture of personal responsibility, such as is embodied by the libertarian political philosophy, would militate against the problem of drug addiction.
Personal responsibility is inconsistent with using government to force people to behave ethically regarding activity that does no violence to others. We libertarians must make a stand for legalization, but we should fight this battle not for the sake of drug addicts, but for freedom as a matter of principle, supported by rational arguments for individual responsibility.
Many drug foes seems incapable of grasping the notion that you can persuade a reasoning mind to choose sobriety freely. Perhaps this is because the anti-drug interest groups have shown not one iota of understanding of how to talk to people about drugs. Instead of running anti-drug ad campaigns that treat people like rational adults, the anti-drug groups (usually in conjunction with government agencies) ads designed to scare or guilt-trip people into quitting drugs. People who have chosen to use drugs as a way to cope with reality are already more afraid of facing reality than they are of death, and they have chosen to be irresponsible. So appealing to the fear of death and the guilt of letting down your loved ones is a silly strategy. A manipulative emotional trick never has the same impact as persuasive reasoning. The proper anti-drugs approach is to convince people rationally.
Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains.
It is notable that when a special interest group wants people to behave in a certain way, but lacks any well-reasoned arguments, it petitions government to pass a law to coercive obedience. Some fools actually may believe that people know better than to do drugs but are too weak to resist temptation and therefore need the government to force them to choose sobriety. Only weaklings and cowards would buy this argument. The government has no special knowledge of the dangers of drugs, no knowledge that the American people lack, nor does it possess a magic wand to make drugs any less appealing. The most effective anti-drug strategy is rational persuasion in a free, legalized society.
When the government forces you to do something that you aren’t persuaded you should do, it is treating you like a child — and the condition of being a child is precisely the condition of not assuming responsibility for yourself, the very condition that leads to drug addiction in the first place. Legalization would send a message that we as a people need to take responsibility for our own choices. It is the best thing the government could do to combat drugs. Rampant drug abuse and the War on Drugs would both be killed by a cultural shift towards personal responsibility. Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains. If society changes so that people are happier and more satisfied with their lives, the power of the government will be vastly curtailed.
If the socialists and the anti-drug warriors actually wanted to solve the drug problem, marijuana would be legal today. Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol. It is the opposite of a gateway drug; it is merely a convenient means of experimentation for curious people making the transition from child to adult. Over the long term, legalized pot would decrease hard drug use. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the state to do the rational thing and legalize marijuana.
At this juncture, the libertarian movement should try to have it both ways: we have already gained significant popularity by appealing to drug users who want drugs to be legalized, but we could also gain a loyal following among drug haters. We should preach that our path of social and political self-responsibility is the way best suited to sober, clear-headed, rational adults. We can thereby attract to our ranks many of the people whose lives have been ruined by drugs and who are looking desperately for an escape from the drug-induced carnage. But because responsible adults are more likely to support free market capitalism than people who are irresponsible and immature, I think that libertarianism can only triumph with the support of sober voters. One might wonder why the many voters who abuse illegal drugs do not swarm the polls and vote libertarian politicians into elected office. My explanation is simple: voters with drug-addled brains are too lazy and irresponsible to become political activists, even though they stand to gain the most from legalization.
Right now the anti-drug, anti-legalization lobby is a powerful foe of libertarianism. The anti-drug activists are passionate and fanatical because they understand the evil of drugs and take inspiration from the virtue of sobriety. But so do I, and my hatred of drug abuse does not make me think that the horrors of the Drug War are in any way justified. If we could chip away at the link between the anti-drug movement and the anti-legalization movement, libertarianism would lose some of its most zealous opponents (perhaps including Ann Coulter and conservatives like her). We should try to persuade some of the anti-drug advocates to abandon the prohibitionists and back legalization as the clever solution to America’s drug addiction problem.