Liberty, Not Legislated Morality, Leads to Human Excellence
“The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be” (Lao-Tzu).
“The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government” (Tacitus).
In a recent article published by the Sutherland Institute on the supposed evils of marijuana decriminalization, the Institute’s president, Paul Mero, demonstrates a clear case of bad philosophy and exemplifies what is currently wrong with Utah political thinking in general.
Despite specific references to Mero and the arguments he employed in the above-referenced article, my comments here are not necessarily meant to single him out or cast aspersions on his character. Many conservatives share Mero’s opinions and wrongly believe Mero’s claims, so by objecting to Mero I am objecting to a set of popular misconceptions that merit rebuttal.
The crux of Mero’s argument is that smoking marijuana diminishes “human excellence” and that it is our moral prerogative to use government and the law to promote behaviors that enhance this “excellence.” Mero even titled his article “Pot smokers want to diminish human excellence,” as if the goal of every marijuana user is specifically to promote human mediocrity.
The purpose of law, according to Mero, is to legislate morality. However, in keeping with America’s founding thought, the purpose of law is rather to establish an objective and just standard—with acknowledgment of the individual’s natural rights—whereby two individuals may bring their disagreements or violations of individual rights before an impartial arbiter. Said Samuel Adams in The Rights of the Colonists:
In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him. By entering into society he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrators.
Here, Adams argues that whatever an individual does toward his personal pursuit of happiness in the state of nature (without organized government), he is likewise perfectly at liberty to do in a state of society (with organized government). The only difference between a state of nature and a state of society is the agreed establishment of an objective and just standard (law) to interpose an “arbiter or indifferent judge” between our neighbor and ourselves.
Inconsistent with the purpose of law as described by Adams, it seems Mero would subdue inherent liberty and use law as a means to impose on society his personal idea of “human excellence”; to the contrary, the libertarian argues that human excellence is only truly achieved when individual liberty is properly upheld and defended.
In his article, Mero not only fails to define “human excellence” but also forgets that human excellence depends on the most basic axioms of human action: autonomy and liberty. Indeed, human excellence is measured by examining those instances when our power to choose and act for ourselves positioned us to achieve excellence where failure could have occurred.
Similarly inconsistent “conservative” thinkers argue that drug prohibition does not take away individual liberty or autonomy but only puts legal consequences on behavior (even when there is not a directly injured second party). This argument calls to mind Senator Harry Reid’s laughable assertion that in America we have a “voluntary tax system.”
All of this said, we should ask ourselves whether the so-called “libertarian” view of drug prohibition has any practical merit. Will people strive for excellence even if they are allowed by law to use marijuana? What if people are allowed to use any currently prohibited narcotic without legal consequence? Won’t society quickly devolve into a pot-smoking, acid-dropping, ecstasy-raving country of addicts if we do not legally prohibit drug use?
Let’s consider the example of drug decriminalization in Portugal. In an article abstract from The New Yorker, dated October 17, 2011, Michael Specter reports concerning the problems that Portugal faced:
By the nineteen-eighties, drug abuse had become a serious problem in Portugal. The Lisbon government responded in the usual way—increasing sentences for convictions and spending more money on investigations and prosecutions. Matters only grew worse. In 1999, nearly one per cent of the population—a hundred thousand people—were heroin addicts, and Portugal reported the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union.
On its face, this may seem to prove Mero’s point—that drug use inherently diminishes human excellence. However, is interesting to note what Portugal ultimately did differently than the United States. Specter continues:
In 2001, Portuguese leaders, flailing about and desperate for change, took an unlikely gamble: they passed a law that made Portugal the first country to fully decriminalize drug use… “We were out of options,” said Joao Goulau, the president of the [Portuguese] Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction… For people caught with no more than a ten-day supply of marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, or crystal methamphetamine—anything, really—there would be no arrests, no prosecutions, no prison sentences. Dealers are still sent to prison, or fined, or both, but, for the past decade, Portugal has treated drug abuse solely as a public-health concern.
When caught, drug users in Portugal are now summoned before an administrative body called the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. There, three-member panels usually consist of a lawyer or a judge, a doctor, and a psychologist or social worker; and the commissioners have three options: recommend treatment, levy a small fine, or do nothing.
The government of Portugal invested its money in helping drug users quit the addiction, instead of criminally prosecuting and incarcerating them. The United States could certainly learn from Portugal’s actions, for the results were quite astonishing:
In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.
In fact, by shifting the focus away from criminalizing drug use and towards helping drug users, the number of users has fallen dramatically. The Associated Foreign Press (AFP) revealed on July 1, 2011, that, after 10 years,
The number of addicts considered “problematic”—those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users—had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people…
Of the many libertarians I know in Utah, I do not know a single one who promotes addictive and abusive drug use. I do, on the other hand, know many individuals who promote autonomy and liberty as the most basic axioms of “human excellence” and who rely on the strength of their arguments to persuade others to abstain from harmful or addictive substances—exploding the myth, held by Mero and many others, that libertarians are largely a drug-loving crowd.
The ideas promoted by closet statists in appealing to the subjective, despotic systems of old—which confound themselves in their aim to create “human excellence” through compulsion and violence—should be discarded as the bad collectivist and “progressive” philosophies that they are. Let us instead follow Portugal’s example in promoting true “human excellence” through persuasion, not through increased legislation, investigations, and prosecutions. There is something intrinsic in each of us that rejects compulsion and hearkens to true persuasion. Let us all remain true to our nature in proving our own “excellence” through liberty and freedom.