The Corner

Classical Liberalism & Drugs

It’s an interesting question when you think about it: Could a classically liberal society ban drugs? Most libertarians say no for reasons we all know. But I’m not so sure I know why the answer is so obvious. Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there’s a drug that, after providing a few days of unbridled ecstacy will result in lifelong horrible addiction in 10% of those who take it, and the usual gamut of other results for the other 90%. Now, assume there’s no way of knowing who will become addicted and who won’t.

Before we continue, let me say that, having known people addicted to drugs, I see real addiction as a kind of slavery, that steals all that is best about a person, not just his labor but his mind, his dignity, his loved ones, and his human potential. The comparison is hardly perfect, but if you’ve seen that kind of addiction, you know that it’s not absurd to say that in some ways it’s worse than slavery because the slavemaster’s evil is perpetrated by the slave, rather than to him.

So anyway, the assumption behind a classically liberal society is that men are sovereign, rational, actors morally responsible for their actions. The problem is that for an irreducible number of people, drug addiction takes away reason, takes away the God-given (or socially constructed, if you prefer) moral sense. Once, addicted, you may be responsible for your actions in a legal and even moral sense, but as a practical matter something like possession is at work.

The pro-legalization response to this is a mixture of A) don’t get so dramatic B) too bad, we’re responsible for our choices and C) why should the majority pay for the weakness of the minority? And, the most reasonable response D) None of this means we should criminalize the issue. We can see it as a public-health issue.

(Some might also note that addiction doesn’t really work that way; after 20 years or so, even the worst addicts can get clean. Fair enough, but forced slavery for 20 years is still forced slavery. And, secondly, that’s not what my hypothetical envisions.)

Anyway, I think a classical liberal could argue that a free society needs to ensure freedom, including from substances that have the potential to enslave men. Classical liberals would take up arms against a society that would enslave 10% of the people in the conventional sense, and rightly so. But when it comes to this kind of enslavement, the response runs completely the other way.

So, now what if the drug in question enslaved 100% of the people who took it? Couldn’t the government ban it then?

(One libertarian response might be, No one would be so stupid as to take a drug that addicted 100% of those who took it. I think that’s not true, in part because some people are very stupid (many of these people are called “teenagers”) and even very smart people are prone to making stupid decisions at certain moments of panic, insecurity, or doubt. Moreover, the drug could be given to people involuntarily; that is what pimps do with heroin now.)

I’m not necessarily asking whether it should, but merely whether it could and remain a classically liberal society. My guess is that classical liberals of good will would come down on both sides of the question.

One last point. If you said yes for a 100% addiction rate, the question becomes: What if only 90% would be horribly addicted for life? 80%? 70%? At what rate does the state have to say, “People know the risks and have to live with the consequences”?

I think their probably is a number, though I have no idea how to gauge it.

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