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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Is Legal Pot A Big Libertarian Issue?

If you follow libertarian political debate, you have probably picked up that libertarians are no friends of the Trump administration. One reason is their animosity toward legalization of marijuana, a policy that was recently reaffirmed by a multi-agency effort to counter pro-legalization campaigns


Legal pot is one of two issues that seem to preoccupy libertarians; the other is the U.S. military presence around the world, including the war on terrorism. While both issues are respectable, they pale in comparison to the problem the Western world, including the United States, face in rolling back its welfare state. It is almost as though libertarian interest in the welfare state has declined with its growth; the bigger economic redistribution becomes, the more libertarians seem to be looking the other way. 

There are exceptions, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity being the foremost among them. However, with more libertarian interest generally being focused on pot legalization than on ending entitlement spending, chances are the welfare state will prevail and pot will be legalized.

Since the welfare state is the root cause of economic stagnation in the western world, the libertarians who focus primarily on pot owe us an explanation: what, exactly, is so hugely important with this particular issue? It is understandable that libertarians occasionally touch on the topic, but the level of obsession in some circles rises beyond comprehension.

What is there to gain in terms of individual freedom from legalization pot?

As an example of how devoted the libertarian movement can be to this issue, consider the investment that the Institute for Humane Studies has made in this issue. Their blog Learn Liberty eagerly advocates legalization and gladly blurs the line between regular marijuana and its medical derivative. They sponsor events that advocate legalization and their executive director, Chad Thevenot, is a long-time champion of legalization

In fact, pot legalization is easily the biggest organizational investment for the IHS, and therefore also for its donors.

Viewed in narrow isolation, there is a lot to be gained from legalization in terms of expanding individual freedom. People should have the right to use whatever substances they want, and take the consequences of their use - and abuse. It is ineffective to counter that a person on drugs is harmful to his environment when he goes violent: violence is punishable regardless of whether a person is high on a drug, drunk on alcohol or perfectly sober. Alas, if a person takes a drug, beats his children and goes to jail, the legalizer will convincingly claim that the drug-using individual has to take the full responsibility for his choice to use the drug in the first place.

It is also ineffective to counter legalization arguments with medical studies on the mental debilitation of people who frequently use drugs. Again, the legalizer will claim individual responsibility, and convincingly so.

The problem with drug legalization shows up in two other forms, one of which is related but not similar to the one about mental debilitation and stupidity. Before we get to that one, though, let us note that libertarian legalizers have eager allies in statist legislators around the country. When the legalization movement swept into Colorado, they used the pot tax as an argument to win over many lawmakers, much in the same fashion as proponents of casinos have made legislative headway in some states. 

Taxes on pot, gambling, tobacco and alcohol are often referred to as "sin taxes". They are not. If they were taxes on sinful behavior, the purpose of the tax would be to deter the behavior. Quite the contrary, these taxes are there to permanently provide revenue for big-spending governments. Since the purpose is to keep the tax in place permanently, it is not there to deter a behavior, but to capitalize on it. Therefore, the proper term is "addiction tax": it is the addiction that makes people come back for more, and that is precisely the reason why governments tend to put taxes on behavior that is generally considered addictive.

Plainly, but brutally: addiction taxes are reliable sources of revenue. This is why statist legislators will happily stand side by side with libertarian legalizers.

And the other way around. In fact, there is even research that seeks to define "optimal libertarian sin taxes", and the debate over how libertarian it is to tax marijuana is at least as old as the Great Recession. In other words, libertarian legalizers are helping perpetuate a welfare state that libertarian theory clearly defines as unjust and a major infringement on liberty.

In addition to the problem of helping fund and grow the welfare state, legalizers have a problem that originates in the point that addicts become mentally debilitated. We can debate the medical literature on this issue, though I would defer it to the experts, but even the most fervent proponent of legalization has to admit that an addictive behavior by definition is irrational. When a person's behavior is irrationally governed, he will not make rational, informed decisions. 

So long as irrational behavior is limited in a person's everyday life, it does not influence his ability to function as a fully adult member of society. For example, I get irrational every time I see my beautiful wife, but that does not mean that my lack of reason around her keeps me from participating in the affairs of maintaining a free and prosperous society. By the same token, a legalizer could make the point that someone who smokes pot on weekends can still function as a member of society and - again - take his share of responsibility for the defense and growth of freedom and prosperity. 

The problem comes when irrational, addictive behavior degrades a person's ability to support himself and his loved ones, or make an informed choice in electing our governor or president. Even more critical is the effect that addictive behavior has on a person's ability to participate in the defense of a free society. 

It does not matter if that defense comes in the form of running for office or picking up a rifle against an outside enemy. When a person succumbs to addiction to a point where he can neither support his family nor stand alongside the rest of us in defending liberty, he has shuffled the burden of defending freedom and supporting those whose livelihood are his moral responsibility, onto the shoulders of others. 

He is no longer working or fighting with his own hands. 

At this point, the effects of addictive behavior no longer remain a private issue. They become political. In becoming political, they fall under the narrow scope of the legitimate minimal state that is acceptable under libertarian theory.

In short: if we have good reasons to believe that a drug will have an impairing effect on people's ability to participate in society as adults; to support their families; and to defend liberty; then we have reasons to consider a ban on that drug. This does not mean that we shall refute the legalization argument altogether, but the burden of proof is on them to show that addictive behavior under legalization will not put freedom and prosperity in jeopardy. If they can do so convincingly, they have won the debate. But only then.

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