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The Problem with Libertarianism

One of the principal themes in the debate about drug legalization stems from libertarian thinking:  That it's up to the individual, not the state, to determine what a person puts into his own body.  Drugs, from this point of view, are a "victimless crime."

Only they aren't.  

In the real world, there are simply too many people who are too immature, uniformed, addiction-prone (or addicted) or just too clueless to allow legalized drug sales.   There is a legitimate debate going on about whether marijuana is sufficiently dangerous to remain criminalized  --  although it's "criminalized" mostly just in theory (visit any college campus)  --  but the broad-brush "victimless crime" theory of drugs rests on a blinkered view of the enormous amount of damage and misery drugs cause.

I'll freely concede that, for reducing drug harms, a better culture is to be preferred to law enforcement.  But until we get a better culture, it is, in my view, indecent to relax the present legal prohibitions on the recreational use of dangerous drugs, knowing how many people they will damage or kill.


Isn't the issue, though, Bill, whether the legalization of drugs, despite the fact that people can be hurt by them, is better from a utilitarian standpoint? I am not pro-legalization at all, but I don't think the "drugs are bad for people" is a full response to the call for legalization.

I cannot believe, for example, that Mexico's drug wars are not fueled at least in part by the fact that the price of drugs is jacked up by the fact that they are contraband.

I also agree with you that the "victimless crime" theory is bunk as well.

There will always be a "black market" for drugs. Many will not be sated by the quantity they can purchase legally and will look elsewhere to meet their needs.

The alternative to legalization is to discourage drug use and dry up the market. Between 1982 and 1992 the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the number of regular cocaine users dropped from 5.8 million to 1.3 million nationally. Over the same period the number of regular marijuana users fell from 22 million to 8.5 million. Between 1992 and 1995 this trend reversed as drug use, especially among children from 12 to 17 increased by 50%.

What changed? During the Reagan/Bush administrations the War on Drugs was a high priority advanced through legislation, aggressive interdiction, and a persistent effort to deglamorize drugs aimed specifically at children. Although Mrs. Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign was widely panned by the media as naive, I recall my elementary school-age children bringing home posters and buttons with this anti-drug message and listening to them explain over the dinner table how drug and alcohol abuse hurt people. I also recall the very effective fried egg television add with "this is your brain on drugs" scrolling across the screen. During this period, especially among children, using drugs became quite uncool. All of this unraveled during the Clinton years and no administration since has made drug abuse a top priority. The next one should.

Excellent point. Would that the media cover its own tendentiousness.

The reasoning that stupid people abuse drugs in ways that cause harm (even indirectly) to others isn't much of an argument unless we are prepared to prohibit smoking and re-prohibit alcohol (far more people are killed or injured by drunk drivers than by high ones and I suspect there are likewise more cigarette-related accidents than illegal drug ones which hurt others).

This particular anti-legalization argument is at least partially motivated by the perfectly understandable desire to reduce traffic accidents. What happens to it in a few years when cars can be self-driving and can do a tox screen just by blowing at the steering wheel to determine if it will let you take control or not?

As a Libertarian, I am still convinced that keeping drugs illegal is more dangerous (gang turf wars, no quality control, corruption of justice systems, continuing encroachment of civil rights, etc.) than legalizing them in the way we do alcohol.

As a human being, I understand the possibility that just turning off the drug laws the way one turns off a light could easily lead to some horrific results. I'm willing to move gradually towards full legalization so long as we are moving that way at reasonable speed. Let's start with marijuana and get our culture used to that for a few years.

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