15 april 2008

The legalization of drug use (Vincent De Roeck)

Sometimes it is hard to differentiate libertarianism from ordinary conservatism, especially in the Anglo-Saxon connotation of both words, since both sides often stand for exactly the same things. Intrinsically libertarian views regarding limited governments, free market economics and individual liberties are often hijacked by conservatives for electoral purposes, making it almost impossible for the masses to make the right perception, let alone to determine the common grounds and differences between both ideologies. To me, drug policy is a very useful discipline since it is one of the most important areas where such a clear distinction between real libertarianism and ordinary conservatism can be made. Ludwig von Mises represents the libertarian side by defending the freedom of the individuals to use drugs, while others representing the conservative side stand for state intervention and zero-tolerance.

Ludwig von Mises states the following on drug policy in his book “Human Action: A Treatise on Economics”:
Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favour of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is it not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs?
Both ideologies try to take advantage of the slippery slope theory. Ludwig von Mises fears that any form of state interference with the freedom of the individual will undoubtedly lead to further state interventions and hence an even more decrease in individual freedom. The conservatives argue that allowing the citizens to use drugs will lead to a vicious circle of abuses with unbearable costs for society. In fact, both sides are right to a certain extent. On the one hand, it can never be the purpose of a libertarian to bankrupt the state by allowing individuals to free-ride on a nation’s health care system, but on the other hand, defending the freedom of choice of the individual implies the very core of libertarian thought, so we should take both arguments in consideration and try to distil a compromise out of it.

Being a libertarian myself, I would immediately state that freedom prevails against state intervention, but this also implies the absence of any form of health care or welfare state system collectively paid by all taxpayers. Liberty always comes together with responsibility, so every individual making the choice to start using dope, eating greasy products, smoking tobacco, or even adopting a risky hobby like bungee-jumping or collecting venomous snakes to name a few, should bear all consequences of that choice. No libertarian can morally force society to pay for the health costs surrounding the use of drugs, but neither can they force drug using individuals to pay for a system they no longer benefit from. So ejecting drug users from free health care also implies that drug users, and by extension all other categories of people potentially envisaged by similar behavioural prohibitions, can opt-out from the system and withhold their taxes.

But since nobody believes in the immediate collapse of the existing health care and welfare state systems, a more practical solution must be put forward by libertarians to counter-argue the conservatives dominating the drug debate. And since even the anti-drug adepts will never be willing to sacrifice their entire welfare state scheme for disallowing some drug users to free-ride on the system, I rather tend to support Ludwig von Mises' views as expressed in "Human Action" and believe that guaranteeing individual freedom always prevails against the attempts, no matter the costs or the arguments invoked, to regulate and prohibit certain behavioural liberties, and especially in this case where there are no real physical exteriorisations of the damage caused by drug use to other people than the users themselves. No state regulation is hence acceptable to me.

Dit commentaarstuk werd in het kader van een zomerseminarie als mini-essay naar het Institute of Economic Studies opgestuurd.

Meer over het Institute of Economic Studies op www.theies.org.
Meer teksten van Vincent De Roeck op www.libertarian.be.


At 15/4/08 16:24, Anonymous Marc huybrechts said...

Vincent, you are taking an 'extremist' position which defies common sense. This is just as dangerous as the extremism of those who want to regulate everything and who devalue individual freedom.

There are numerous "physical exteriorisations of the damage caused by drug use to other people than.....". Take the simple example of car accidents caused by mind-altering drug use. Also, the impact of drug-using parents on their children's 'education' bears not thinking about. Etc...... It is not unreasonable to argue that most regulation is - or was - originally rooted in empirical observation of practical problems. The fact that many people take regulation to extremes does not argue for running to another extreme.

Instead of taking absolutist positions (like "No state regulation is hence acceptable to me"), it is more reasonable to recognise that one faces a dilemma between conflicting values, and that a 'compromise' is in order. On the one hand, one must continue to emphasise the values of individual freedom and individual responsibility, but at the same time one must also recognise the existence of manifest and potential problems and consequences resulting from individual freedom.

I am talking about individual freedom in the sense of action-freedom or behavioral freedom, i.e. freedom to take certain actions. This should never be confused with freedom of thought or of 'speech' (in a political sense). Yet, this is what Von Mises did in that long citation you quoted. It was ridiculous - really it was 'disingenuous' - for him to mix up "narcotic drug use" with issues like "bad books...bad plays...bad ideologies etc.." or, worse, with "harming a man's soul". These are all extremely subjective concepts. There is nothing subjective about your wife being killed by a drug addict in a car accident, or the state (i.e. you and me) having to 'clean up' and trying to take care of the children of drug addicts.

At 15/4/08 22:06, Anonymous Thomas said...

Marc, perhaps you might be interested in the following quote of Franklin P. Adams in the 1930s during the Prohibition in the United States:

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.

If we prohibit the use of drugs, we will only generate an enormous increase in drug addicts, so the best way to deal with the issue, is simply to legalize it and regulate the production. This is not a theoretical libertarian argument, but a purely practical one.

At 15/4/08 23:10, Anonymous DV said...

And furthermore, since "poison" is a very misleading shibboleth regarding to drug use, Vincent De Roeck is completely right by stating that there are no real physical exteriorisations of drug use towards third parties, but even for the drug users themselves there is no risk, as pointed out by many independent research papers on the issue. The widespread propaganda that illegal drugs are "deadly poisons" is a hoax.

There is little or no medical evidence of long term ill effects from sustained, moderate consumption of uncontaminated marijuana, cocaine or heroin. If these substances - most of them have been consumed in large quantities for centuries - were responsible for any chronic, progressive or disabling diseases, they certainly would have shown up in clinical practice and/or on the autopsy table. But they simply have not!

At 16/4/08 11:15, Anonymous Anoniem said...

The only critique of Mr. Huybrechts I can concur with, is his opinion on Mises' view. Mises is a very important philosopher for liberals and libertarians, but regarding drugs, he made the mistake to ridicule the prohibition of drugs, while there is no real ground for doing so.

At 16/4/08 12:04, Anonymous Anoniem said...

Wauw, een Engelse discussie op deze blog. Lekker internationaal doen!

At 16/4/08 14:36, Anonymous Caroline Van Hecke said...

The drug debate is exactly the same kind of discussion as the one on the legalisation of drunk driving (see Lew Rockwell's webpage for more info on alcohol abuse). Do we accept the state as a supreme power prohibiting us the use of drugs/alcohol, or do we believe in the rationale of the individual making its own decisions and taking responsibility for its own actions. If a drug using car driver kills an innocent human being, he is responsible for the consequences and must be tried, just like a drunk driver, but if drug users or alcohol consumers do not harm other people than themselves, no government inference is acceptable. Vincent is right.

At 16/4/08 16:32, Anonymous Ivan Janssens (op Libertarian.be) said...

I'm generally sceptic about slippery slope arguments, but in this case one cannot escape the fact that the argument is fundamentally correct. We start with regulating drug use and we end with the war against drugs with no effect on drug use whatsoever but with enormous human and financial costs. Putting people behind bars because they use instances wich have been used almost universally over the course of human history is insane.


At 16/4/08 17:46, Blogger Karel "Jazz" Jansens said...

I believe Marc is both right and wrong: It is true that doing stuff while under the influence of drugs can cause harm to others. Nevertheless, this has never been an argument to ban alcohol (and only slightly -- and, some argue, under false pretences -- so for tobacco).

IMHO, a non-dualistic drug ethic is necessary: While a responsible adult should be free to do to her/his body and mind whetever they please, a non-tolerance policy towards minors is mandatory, as well as a very strict and severe sanctioning regimen against accidents/crimes/harm caused while "uriding the high horse".

And although, and contrary to what dv said, alcohol, cocaine and heroine are indeed potentially lethal drugs, I don't really care too much about the consequences of a liberal drug policy on the welfare state: long-term drug users tend to die off quite young, so they're not likely to ever become much of a drag on society.

In short: Yes to free drug use (after all, it won't change my behaviour), but an absolute "no" to dopeheads bothering or harming others, and a mill stone for those who push drugs to minors.

At 16/4/08 18:29, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

As a general comment I would repeat that widespread acceptance of extremist positions (such as "no state regulation is acceptable...") is a clear sign of cultural degeneration and decline. And conflating or confusing human freedom with 'freedom'-to-take-drugs is another such sign.

On specific points:

1) The notion that "prohibition" would generate an "increase in drug addicts" is silly. It will certainly generate 'recognition' of drug addicts, but not an "increase" in actual drug addiction. On the contrary, it will have some limitred deterring effect. The law, any law, has many purposes, one of which is to have an advisory or warning effect. And, what does "regulate production" mean? It is once again turning the world upside down. It is consumption of drugs (in general) that needs to be regulated, not production. Finally, "vice and crime" do exist, independent of "prohibition" of drugs. In fact, there is massive empirical evidence of drug use as an 'inducer' or source of multiple crimes.

2) Contrary to dv's contention, there is substantial evidence of "moderate" consumption of "uncontaminated" drugs as a 'gateway' to drug addiction of contaminated ones. And anybody who has had practical experience with treatment of drug addicts (in inevitably publicly-financed addiction clinics) would not write such self-serving nonsense as dv does.

3) Of course individuals should in general make their own decisions and, equally important, they should be held responsible for their own actions. That does NOT obviate the need for state regulation, but it certainly allows for much disagreement or argument about the nature and content of that regulation. And it is not co-incidental that (certain) societies appear to be increasingly reluctant to actually "hold people responsible" (or accountable) for their own actions as these same societies become more 'licentious' concerning drug use (and other matters as well). It is no great philosophical insight to state that people who are incapable of tolerating minor constraints or restrictions (such as drug use) on personal behavior, will be incapable of making CONCRETE sacrifices for greater 'goods' (like preserving freedom of speech and of genuine democracy in the world). 'Soft' in behavior means 'soft' in the head.

4) Has Mr Ivan Janssens ever even begun to consider the "enormous human and financial cost" of drug use? Why does he equate prohibition of certain drugs with "putting people behind bars"? The fact that "instances have been used almost universally over the course of human history" can provide the same sort of argument as saying that poverty and tyranny have been most of mankind's lot since time immemorial. Some things are much worse than putting some "people behind bars". Like, for instance, inability to put certain people behind bars, i.e. NOT holding them accountable for their own actions, or NOT implementing your own (necessary) immigration laws, etc... You get my drift.

At 16/4/08 20:50, Anonymous Simon said...

Some questions:

How is a legislative war of all against all to be prevented when people with despotic minds like Mr Huybrechts want to impose their opinion (on drugs) on others? Has he considered the fact that the power he gives to the state to regulate other people's lives according to his wishes can be used against him as well (for example in curtailing freedom of speech)?

Why on earth would their exist any moral duty by drugusers to obey Marc Huybrechts? He doesn't seem to unterstand that he himself is a human being, like everyone else, that has an inalienable right to be the master of himself only, and of no other rational being.

At 16/4/08 22:11, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

@ Simon

1) Please, explain on what basis you call me "despotic"? Do I give anywhere any indication that I would impose my personal wishes on others, if I could do so? An honest answer, please. All I have done is asserting a democratic society's 'right' to regulate a variety of behavior and actions. Do you consider the trafic code also an intolerable infraction of your indiviudal freedom?

2) Could you be 'adult' enough to forego silly strawmen? Drugusers, like everybody else, do not have to "obey" me. But they should obey the laws of a democratic 'polity'. And if they want all the advantages of such a polity, they also have a moral duty to abide by its 'requirements' (i.e. its laws). This means, among other things, that if they do not like the law, they should be free to try to change it by democratic means of persuasion (not imposition by force) and the electoral process. As a democrat, I am exercising my right of free speech in order to change or improve the law.

3) If you cannot make the distinction between freedom (and unfreedom) of ACTIONS and freedom of opinion or SPEECH, then I am sorry to say that you are not a 'democrat', in the sense that you do not understand the essence of democracy.

'Democracy' does NOT mean that everybody is free to do what he or she pleases. Every civilized society will recognise the need to regulate behavior or actions. But democracy does mean (or require) that people are free to express their opinions, so that they can influence 'others', and through a genuinely free electoral process be able to change the laws and regulations constantly over time (and in response to changing circumstances). Democracy is certainly not compatible with utopian constructs, be they the tyranny of autocracy or totalitarianism at one extreme, nor the chaos or jungle of everybody does-his-own-thing at the other extreme. The latter has never exsted anywhere, precisely because it could not last anywhere, and the former (utopian autocratic ideologies) have been the common occurrence throughout human history. It is democracy that is the exception, precisely because it is hard and requires effort and 'restrictions' on individual behavior.

At 16/4/08 23:13, Anonymous Simon said...

@ Marc Huybrechts:

1) Your mindset is despotic because you think about how to regulate other people. Instead of looking at yourself and others the way they are; rational beings with the same rights as you, you adopt the viewpoint of a gardener onto his plants or a slavemaster onto his slaves. You treat them as "stuff" that needs to be arranged according to your plans, forgetting that drugusers are not things, but rational beings who think of the option of taking drugs as the best way to spend their time (otherwise they wouldn't do it). They may be wrong of course, and that's where you might step in as educator on how bad these things are (or support others to do this). You might start with your friends, family or communtiy.

2) You do force drugusers to stop using drugs. When you vote for a party that wants a prohibition on drugs, you decide that you have the right to prohibit drugusers from using their drugs. You see no problem in using a third party (the state) to do a thing you don't dare to do yourself; go to drugusers and take away their stuff. On top of this you have the arrogance to decide that others should fit the bill for these (immensly costly) police-actions.

3) A lot of different definitions are attached to democracy, and I don't have problems with all of them. To me it seems that a democracy is a way to run a society, but nothing more. Any company can accept the rules of a democracy, and that's fine, as long as everyone agrees on the rules. Where things go wrong is in our present political democracies, that is: the great "fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else" (Bastiat; The Law). No wonder mass democracy was at the birth of the omnipresence of the state; at the beginnning of the 20th century everyone was no able to take from everybody else through the state.

At 17/4/08 19:25, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

@ simon

1) So, you call me "despotic" because I dare to "think" about societal regulations. I am afraid you have no clue what real "despotism" is, but I dare to say that you may well encounter it in the future in your own country if your shallow kind of thinking finds many followers in society.

Everybody "thinks" about societal regulations all the time. And no society can function without regulations. The Belgian parliament, for instance, is passing laws constantly, on innumerable subjects, and many of them attempt to 'regulate' behavior in one way or another. Why you would pick out one specific area, like prohibitions of certain 'drugs', among all these countless regulations, and attach the label of "despotic" to that particular one, is fascinating. Or really, it is not fascinating but rather it is very 'transparent'. It shows that you do not understand 'democracy', i.e. (1) the need for citizens to freely debate and make laws and regulations through their elected representatives, and (2) the need for citizens to adhere to the laws, all laws (even those they do not 'agree' with) emanating from a genuine democratic polity. Think of it as the 'price' you pay for the benefits of living in such a polity. If everybody could pick and choose among the laws of the polity, or if rulers could pick and choose which ones applied to themselves, then we would have chaos and/or something approaching 'despotism'.

Not only does the Belgian parliament pass (restricting) laws all the time, but it has also been engaging in passing laws that restrict freedom of (political) speech. Now, that is a sure step on the road to 'serfdom' (Hayek) and to genuine despotism. Because without freedom of political speech, there can be no longer genuinely 'free' elections. The latter require that the public has the opportunity to hear and learn about all views and make up its own mind. Freedom of speech is the crucial element that allows societies to adapt over time to changing circumstances, and that can prevent the establishment of long-term opinion-orthodoxies (who historically lead to 'revolutions').

2) It is not "I" who do force drugusers to stop using drugs. It would be society through its political system that would do so, if it makes such laws. And, I repeat, in a democracy (i.e. where freedom of speech is respected) the public can adjust the laws constantly through debate and its representatives. Contrary to what you claim, I certainly "see a problem" whenever restrictive regulations are issued, but unlike you I can recognise that there will often be valid pro and contra arguments on any particular issue. It is you who seems to claim some absolute 'right' to be exempted from the democratic deliberative and decisionmaking process as far as drugconsumption is concerned. That is akin to infantile 'democracy' for children who refuse restrictions imposed by society.

3) Sure, there are many "definitions" of "democracy", and in the present climate of moral relativism that often means that many people do not take it very serious anymore (since so many polities could be called "democracy"). To me actual democracy can only be judged empirically, by applying two practical tests. First, I ask: does power regularly alternate between clearly-distinct (and opposing) ideologies, not just does it rotate among several individiuals (or power-sharing parties) in a given country or polity? And, second, does the 'state' genuinely respect freedom of political speech? Belgium today certainly fails the second test. Whether it fails the first, is more debatable and not so clear (as it requires detailed argument about the meaning or content of "distinct-ideologies" alternating). But when certain subjects are declared 'taboo' (by criminalisng certain 'speech') then the signs are clear that an established orthodoxy is perpetuating itself.

You are certainly very wrong to think that "mass democracy was at the birth of the omnipresence of the state". If you want to experience an "omnipresent state" you will have to go and live (not visit as a tourist with an exit visa) in an actual totalitarian state. Say, like China for instance today, or North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, etc... There was never any "mass democracy" there. Yet, the state is more "omnipresent" there than among the cultural naive-lefties that are ruling Belgium today.


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