Moderation in Drug Policy Is a Virtue: A Response to Patrick Lynch

I am obliged to Patrick Lynch for his thoughtful reply to my four posts concerning drug policy.

Mill’s “very simple principle” is important for two reasons. First: This harm principle is, at least in my experience, adduced quite often in some form or other by those who argue that drugs should be produced, sold, and consumed like any other commodity. In trying to reach this conclusion, advocates are right to quote it because of the second reason: Once the principle is breached, it has been admitted that public authorities, however they are constituted, may legitimately interfere in the matter. This having been conceded, it becomes a question of the best policy to follow, and not one of applying a simple, fundamental, and universal principle to the problem.

The best policy does not, of course, make itself immediately evident and is the object of fallible judgment. To be sure, we ought to favor the least restrictive policy advisable; but the weight that we attach to liberty in any question depends to an extent on the liberty that is claimed. Freedom of opinion and expression are obviously more important than the freedom to take arsenic (the first drug, incidentally, whose abuse was controlled, at least in Britain).

I am sorry if Dr. Lynch finds me philosophically shallow, but I am also sorry to say that I do not find that the Ludwig von Mises quotation he brought to the discussion adds much philosophical depth. He quoted Mises as follows:

. . . in so far as each individual acts as a member of society, he is obliged to adapt himself to the will of his fellows. In this way no one depends more upon others than others depend on him.

Not only does the second sentence not in the least follow from the first, but the second sentence points to a state of being that never has and never could come into existence. In almost every human transaction there is an inequality of dependence; power may be controlled, but it can never be equalized, and those who seek to equalize it not only commit themselves to a Sisyphean labor, but are destined to cause a great deal of misery to themselves and others, in a way similar to that caused by economic egalitarians.

Failing to find the simple principle that governs human existence is hardly blameworthy, for “gray is theory, but green is the tree of life.”

I agree with Dr. Lynch on a number of points, however, among them that circumstances may alter cases and what may be right for one country, or one part of one country, may not be right for another. Indeed, what might be right, or at least alright, for one social class or individual may not be right or at least alright for another. Law is inevitably a blunt instrument or a net with a coarse mesh.

Britain is a good example of the need for caution in applying one country’s experience to another. The British government believed, or affected to believe, that the harmful effects of alcohol were worsened by the relatively restrictive licensing laws then in force, and that if these laws were brought into line with those of Mediterranean countries, the British would abandon their unattractive drinking habits and adopt those of the Mediterraneans. This did not happen. The relaxation of licensing laws exacerbated the tendency to public drunkenness, such that the centers of British towns and cities became virtual no-go areas for people who did not want to join in scenes of mass drunkenness.

The relaxation undoubtedly increased the freedom of some, but it also restricted the effective liberty of others. Moreover, it created economic interests so strong as to make reversal of the relaxation very difficult. It increased pressure on emergency departments of hospitals, the great majority of whose night work now involves dealing with the consequences of excessive drinking. It is true that the laws against public drunkenness have remained in force, in the sense that they have not been repealed, but there is no will to enforce them and the problem is of such a scale that stricter enforcement would now be difficult, expensive, and experienced as oppressive.

Dr. Lynch raises the specter of paternalism—of authorities’ claiming to know people’s interests better than they do. It is obvious that such paternalism can easily slide into tyranny, and we can all probably give many examples of either absurd or oppressive or dictatorial regulation. The modern administrative state tends toward bullying; it seems increasingly that a government of the people is becoming a people of the government.

Nevertheless, a society without any paternalism whatever would probably be intolerable. Given the unavoidable complexity of modern existence, we all need sometimes to be paternalized, if a neologism may be allowed. When I go to my doctor, lawyer, or accountant, for example, I want him to tell me what he thinks is best for me. I trust him to do so, and so far, at least, I have been fortunate in the results. In part—but only in part—my trust depends on official certification of his knowledge and competence. In that certification I have no say whatsoever.

It is true, of course, that I am not obliged to take the advice. Nevertheless, the point is that I assume that others may know better than I what is in my interests. And in practice, authorities likewise know many things in my interest better than I know them myself, and give me no choice in their pursuit. With this situation I am perfectly content. It would be a nightmare, at least in present circumstances, to have to decide everything for oneself—the permissible level of particulate matter or sulphur dioxide in the air, say, or the air-traffic regulations, all of which may have to change in the light of experience and new conditions. There are times when someone else must decide for us.

Thus to say of a policy that it is paternalistic is no criticism of it at all. What needs to be shown is that it is unnecessarily or wrongfully or harmfully or intolerably paternalistic. Again, I doubt whether any simple principle can be found that tells us when any of these epithets applies.

None of this means that current policy is right; it is just that it cannot be shown by purely philosophical means to be wrong. And my four posts (I, II, III, IV) were only intended to demonstrate that extreme libertarian claims with regard to drugs such as I have heard frequently expressed—No one has the right to tell me what I put in my body and Most of the harm of drugs is caused by their illegality—are untenable. But that, like so many other things, is a matter of judgment.

Reader Discussion

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on September 16, 2015 at 12:22:44 pm

Translation: I know it's toxic and may lead to death, but I'm prescribing it anyway, because I have an excuse in that a previous effort at the sort-of opposite that you recommend [was so badly mismanaged and half-brained that it] was doomed to fail.

Really, judge for yourself; all those words and the high-minded(-esque) tone of his writing can be--should be--boiled down to that. Of course, it doesn't make much of a "case," whereas some might be fooled by a couple of ten-dollar words, an opaque (translucent at best) sentence structure, and a couple of mangled case studies.

It's very easy to mismanage any change of law or public policy--or anything else, for that matter. Reagan-Bush found this out as banking (S&Ls actually) was deregulated without restoring accountability to the deregulated industry--keeping accountability in government hands. As it was done, we ended up with bail-outs, opus 1986+.

If you're removing a dam, empty it first, THEN tear it down. Don't tear the dam of a full reservoir down, or you'll have a disaster. Or perhaps that disaster is your way of "proving" that the idea of removing the dam was a bad idea in the first place. We get a lot of that from government... ...for millennia. And that's almost certainly what happened in England's deregulation attempt.

Deregulation and "delegalization" (the latter meaning having the legal system ignore drugs) clearly have to be done sensibly, with an awareness of 'dams' in place and an intelligent means of 'draining' them. We even had to learn same through our (U.S.) earlier experience of The Prohibition: when it was removed, there still was a horrendous fight. All that 'dammation' known as official repression... It's still not really worked out: the narcissists won at least a few battles and hold that ground today.

The drug war is a cure that's far worse than the disease. Until the prison-industrial complex can be disincentivized and/or deconstructed, vested interests will rule and keep that atrocious cure in place.

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on September 21, 2015 at 06:31:07 am

It is true that the British experiment with relaxation of licensing laws resulted in chaos in our town centres and added to the burden on A&E wards. However, those premises best placed to gain from the relaxation were the kind of nightclubs where drinking is of the binge type and where disorder is a guarantee no matter what hour of the day it might be - especially when blended with the kind of recreational drug use so common in such places. The experiment could have served rural pubs or quieter town centre pubs and bars much better. By and large, the drinkers leaving establishments such as that are no menace to society. Hence the enduring popularity of the good old-fashioned lock-in, one of the only ways that the industry is currently able to stave off extinction.

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Chris Phillips

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