Re: A Talented Leading Man Exits

I am a big fan of Ben Shapiro, but I would like to take issue with something he says in this post about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose. He is right that Seymour Hoffman was incredibly talented and that his death, as well as the deaths of Heath Ledger and Cory Monteith, is a tragedy. But then he writes:

His self-inflicted death is yet another hallmark of the broken leftist culture that dominates Hollywood, enabling rather than preventing the loss of some of its greatest talents. Libertarianism becomes libertinism without a cultural force pushing back against the penchant for sin; Hollywood has no such cultural force.

How did libertarianism get dragged into this?

For one thing, we hardly live in a libertarian world — we live in a War on Drugs world, where the use of heroin is prohibited, travelers’ bags are routinely searched for illegal plants, and government agents throw people in jail and destroy their lives just because they use or sell soft drugs such as pot, let alone hard drugs such as heroin.

It was in this world of prohibition, not in a world of libertine-enabling libertarianism, that Philip Seymour Hoffman died. If anything, his death is one more reminder that the War on Drugs hasn’t stopped people from using drugs or eliminated drug use – the drug warriors are losing.

Additionally, Shapiro’s argument seems to connect the Left to libertarianism. As Jonah noted yesterday, “It is a mistake, it seems to me, to say that liberals are libertarian about much of anything.” He is correct. Progressive’s full-throated support of “choice” largely begins and ends with abortion. Progressives are decidedly not “pro-choice” in other areas of government intervention. When is the last time you heard a progressive fight for an employer’s “choice” to hire an employee at a certain wage? Or for a young person’s “choice” to opt out of Obamacare? Even on social issues such as drug legalization, many progressives simply support the status quo.

Libertarians, on the other hand, do not restrict our support of “choice” only to the choices that we personally prefer. Rather than supporting any particular lifestyle, libertarianism rather supports systems that maximize individuals’ opportunities to pursue whatever lifestyle they choose – so long as they do not physically harm anyone or prevent others’ pursuits of their own lifestyles. Libertarians support legalizing drugs for philosophical, moral, and practical reasons, but we don’t support “drug use” as such. Rather, libertarianism acknowledges that people own themselves and have a right to do whatever they want with their bodies, even if others find the activity reprehensible. One can be in favor of drug legalization while acknowledging that drug consumption can be dangerous, irresponsible, and even immoral. 

Libertarians also understand that, for most people, the legal status of a drug probably isn’t the decisive factor in whether one would use drugs or not. Legal or not, I won’t do drugs. And legal or not, some people will use them, and some will abuse them. Our policies should not ignore this reality, which means we denounce government policies that do not work, that are destructive, and that often make the problem worse. The War on Drugs is all of these things.

Long-time readers will recognize of National Review will recognize this line of thought, because NR came to this conclusion years ago. I would like to point Corner readers to a symposium from the July 1, 1996, issue of the magazine entitled “The War on Drugs Is Lost.” Here is part of the Editors’ introductory note:

Things being as they are, and people as they are, there is no way to prevent somebody, somewhere, from concluding that “NATIONAL REVIEW favors drugs.’’ We don’t; we deplore their use; we urge the stiffest feasible sentences against anyone convicted of selling a drug to a minor. But that said, it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.

We are joined in our judgment by Ethan A. Nadelmann, a scholar and researcher; Kurt Schmoke, a mayor and former prosecutor; Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief; Robert W. Sweet, a federal judge and former prosecutor; Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist; and Steven B. Duke, a law professor. Each has his own emphases, as one might expect. All agree that the celebrated war has failed, and that it is time to go home, and to mobilize fresh thought on the drug problem in the context of a free society. This symposium is our contribution to such thought.

There is evidence that drug decriminalization in Portugal, along with other policies, did not increase drug consumption among the Portuguese. Drug-usage rates in Portugal are among the lowest in the EU and drug-related pathologies, such as STDs and drug-related deaths, decreased dramatically.  Contra Shapiro, in a world with legal drugs, there can be a “cultural force pushing back against the penchant for sin”: It’s called doctors, family members, and friends. Government isn’t the only enforcer of moral and healthy conduct — if it should be one at all. It can be a pretty poor one, the Portuguese experiment in drug liberalization suggests, since the project has done more to correct the ills of drug use in that country than any half-baked prohibition scheme dreamed up yet.

I would recommend Kevin’s fantastic piece on narcotics and Seymour Hoffman’s death: Those who recognize that people can be irrational about drugs and seriously prone to abuse can still believe they ought to be legalized.


Veronique de Rugy — Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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