The Other Gender Gap: Weed

by Kevin D. Williamson

Narcolaw, a blog about drug policy, point to an interesting poll from Quinnipiac: Men strongly favor the legalization of marijuana (59 percent for legalization vs. 36 percent again) while women oppose it 52 percent to 44 percent. (Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.) That sex gap is even more pronounced than the split between men’s and women’s presidential preferences in the 2012 election, which was the largest such gap ever recorded.

Why the dramatic difference?

Michele Martinez Campbell at Narcolaw suggests that it may be the case the American women’s general preference for Democratic policies stems from concern about “broader social welfare issues,” while others have suggested that it may be the case that men take a more individualistic and rights-based approach to the question while women are more concerned about possible social costs associated with legalization.  

This fits with my own pet theory that women, members of minority groups, and other traditional constituencies for activist government are risk-averse relative to white men. Groups that historically have been marginalized, economically and politically, are less inclined to trust in free markets and other decentralized institutions and instead seek government guarantees as a hedge against various kinds of risk. That is why it far from impossible — or even surprising — that there are people who really do understand that the Affordable Care Act will introduce various inefficiencies and stupidities into the health-insurance market but nonetheless support it, for much the same reason that people who understand that Social Security is not a very good “investment” for them prefer the security (the overestimated security, in my view) of a government-backed program to the more profitable but volatile investment markets. They call it Social Security for a reason.

The costs of our idiotic drug war are obvious, but it is also easy to imagine serious costs associated with legalization. (And those who refuse to give serious consideration to the downsides of legalization are as daft and irresponsible as the drug warriors.) If risk-mitigation is your guiding principle, then prohibition very well might make more sense: The devil you know, and all that.

There is always an element of the police state inherent in the nanny state. If your health care is public business, then it’s everybody’s business what you eat, drink, and smoke, whether you get enough sleep and exercise, etc. In the context of cradle-to-grave social programs, telling people that they cannot smoke marijuana may be entirely reasonable, a question of cost-benefit analysis. But that view involves forsaking, or at least minimizing, any real and robust sense of privacy and individual autonomy, the idea that the state simply does not get give you certain kinds of orders, regardless of the cost-benefit analysis.

In a sense, that is the fundamental difference between the progressive view and the classical-liberal view: For the progressive, everything is in the end a cost-benefit calculation, and there are few if any permanent principles limiting what public policy can do if the payoff is sufficient to warrant it. For the classical liberal, some things are beyond that sort of analysis, and beyond democracy, for that matter: We’d still want free speech even if a thousand Brookings studies proved that it imposed social costs outweighing its benefits, even if 51 percent, 65 percent, or 99.99999 percent of the electorate wanted to get rid of it.

People on the conservative-libertarian end of the spectrum see the drug question as being more like free speech than like the question of whether the top income tax rate should be 35 percent or 39 percent. In general, we tend to see many more issues as belonging in that category, whereas progressives see more issues as being matters for cost-benefit analysis.

Why it is that members of different groups tend to make those judgments in such markedly different ways is something that electioneers looking to build bigger electoral coalitions would do well to ponder.

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