Weed and libertarians

A response

A friend wrote a post about libertarians in light of Colorado’s implementation of marijuana legalization. He’s a conservative of sorts, and while he only presents his ideas in a circumspect fashion, he makes one central claim:

In this post I am trying to convince the libertarian that “You too want the law to mirror your opinions of right and wrong.”

You see, he is tired of people like me*, who think marijuana should be legal, accusing people like him, who think it should be illegal, of legislating morality or forcing his views on others. He uses the term libertarian-liberal, suggesting an alliance of modern liberals and libertarians on cultural issues. That’s sort of true for me, at least. I sometimes use the term market liberal (in the original sense of the word) to describe myself, and find that I prefer blue states and blue cities. I don’t think the War On Christmas is real, and I think the Duck Dynasty guy is a jerk. But libertarians are different from liberals and conservatives in the way we approach laws that deal with social issues.

According to my friend, marijuana will make people weak or lazy and undermine a country in which its use is permitted by law. By allowing for choice, people like me will convince the weak-minded, malleable median person to take up bad habits. Once the libertarians have led all these poor souls down a primrose path to THC holocaust, who is really oppressing whom, man? Or something like that.

He offers this story to support his perspective:

Pretend I am a political leader that works very hard to keep the people of my city moderate and strong. I know that it takes a great deal of work to do this, because human passions are hard things to compete against. They persuade most people. Nevertheless, I love the freedoms my people have earned through our courage, moderation and ability to wage war against our enemies and so I work very hard to persuade my people that listening to their base pleasures is bad. Suppose a libertarian swaggers into my city and says, “Don’t you all know you should be allowed to eat as much McDonald’s as you like and smoke marijuana as well!” What am I to think of this character? My first thought will be that he is trying to enslave me and my people. His people must have been exhausted by our strength and this is their insidious plot to weaken us. But what happens when I find out this little talking-box is sincere? What a wonder! Of course, his sincerity only makes him more of a threat. That is, his ideas will weaken my people whether he is sincere or not, but it will be harder to convince my people that he is evil if he is indeed sincere and not at all malicious. His sincerity has a better shot of winning my people over to the bad thing because he is sincere, and so he turns out to be a graver enemy for his sincerity. Now, say the libertarian, over many years, convinced my people to eat McDonald’s and smoke pot. Who will have conquered whom?

Naturally, I have a few problems with this.

First, a political leader who works hard to keep his people “moderate and strong” sounds more like Muammar Gaddafi than a philosoper king. Public choice theory suggests that a good person is unlikely to ever be in such a position of power.

Second, people are already free to use as much marijuana as they like. It doesn’t take a bad libertarian for people to figure this out. Kids are able to secure as much weed as they can smoke, often while in school. The decision to use or not has little to do with the plant’s legal status for most people.

Third, this story seems to suggest that there is some polity in which everyone agrees with one another or shares a really broad swath of moral views. I find such a place unlikely.

Fourth, trying to convince people that marijuana should be allowed is very different from trying to convince people to smoke marijuana themselves.

But I digress.

Libertarians do want the law to mirror our opinions of right and wrong, but people like me have something very different in mind when we say that. As Jonathan Haidt demonstrated, libertarians generally favor individual liberty as their foremost guiding moral principle.

People like my friend have opinions about drugs, sex, education, and virtue. If something is bad it should probably be banned. Not just banned by his religious community or group of friends, but that ban should be backed by the force of law.

Modern liberals can sometimes be similar to conservatives in this regard, and want to force bigoted bakers to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, or force racists to serve dinner to black people, etc. The important difference between liberals and conservatives here is their respective moral viewpoints, not their methods or conception of the law.

I have my own opinions about homosexuality, drugs, education, bigotry, and so on. I might ask a third party to share those views, but it would only be a request backed by persuasion. It’s worth noting here that libertarian views on most moral issues aside from respect for personal autonomy vary greatly.

I won’t force anyone to share my opinions on the above issues for two reasons. First, doing so would violate my moral view that individual liberty is paramount, and, second, I don’t think it is physically possible for me to do so. Many libertarians agree with both, but most focus on the latter. In appealing to others, nearly all libertarians focus on utilitarian considerations of how things work out in real life.

Libertarians have two distinct categories of moral bads. One libertarian, Lysander Spooner, called them vices and crimes. Vices are actions bad for the person doing something, crimes are actions that victimize a third party. Vices only deserve scorn, while violence can be rightfully used to stop crimes, even those not committed against you. There are more nuanced version of this theory from more recent philosophers, but it will work for the purposes of a short blog post*.

Conservatives like my friend lack such a clear principle for differentiating types of moral bads—those that deserve scorn on the one hand and violence on the other—but they sometimes make such a distinction nonetheless. My friend, like most other conservatives, would never use violence to prevent immoral actions like being an uncaring husband, or intentionally arriving late to a social engagement. However, he wouldn’t hesitate to use the full force of the state in a futile attempt to limit the supply of certain intoxicants like marijuana (but not others, like alcohol).

When conservatives pragmatically diverge from the vice/crime distinction, they call it prudence. To a libertarian, “prudence” in this sense is just a cover for the conservative’s own lack of principles, as noted in Hayek’s, “Why I Am Not A Conservative.”

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.

What separates libertarians from conservatives, aside from our different moral foundations, is this view of law and society. While the conservative, the modern liberal, the communist, etc, wants to erect an apparatus of oppression to control the vices of rival groups, libertarians elect for a legal order in which people of different moral persuasions can cooperate peacefully and still pursue their own individual ends. To achieve such an order, everyone has to agree to fight vices through persuasion, and only use political authority against crimes.

Perhaps due to our status as perennial minority, libertarians don’t expect conservatives or liberals to ever fully win a struggle to enforce a ban on their preferred vices. The outcome of such a struggle, according to libertarians, is less autonomy for everyone, a less peaceful existence, and less prosperity***.

Rather than wanting the law to mirror my opinions of right and wrong, as a libertarian I believe a condition of liberty in which all are allowed to use their knowledge for their purposes, restrained only by rules of just conduct of universal application, is likely to produce the best conditions for achieving our divergent, individual moral aims; and that such a system is likely to be achieved and maintained only if all authority, including that of the majority of the people, is limited in the exercise of coercive power by general principles to which the community has committed itself.

That’s why I think marijuana use, even if others rightfully view it as a vice (which it is not), should be completely legal for any adult to use as he or she sees fit. I don’t expect my friend to agree with me, but I do expect him—keeping in mind that many libertarians themselves share his views on drugs, sex, virtue, etc—to agree that we do have a different conception of the law and how it should reflect our views of right and wrong.


*For the purpose of this blog post, libertarian will mean mainstream Hayekian/Friedmanite libertarian.

**For the finer points, see the full discussion of the non-aggression principle at libertarianism.org.

***We’re going to ignore the obvious and utter failure of the war on drugs, the violence it inflicts on innocent third parties, the contempt for rule of law it breeds, and the completely disproportionate harms prohibition itself causes, for the sake of discussing a broader principle.