Discussing drug legalization with libertarians, as I did recently, can be a frustrating experience. This is in part because they rarely say exactly what they mean by “legalization.” Do they mean a controlled market that would barely represent a retreat from state regulation and interference, or an uncontrolled one, in which we would all be able to buy methamphetamine or crack at our local store?
There is a much deeper problem, though: their conception of what it is to live in a civilized society. They seem to think of people as egoistic particles that occasionally bump into one another rather than as necessarily and essentially social beings. No doubt there are some egoistic particles among us, but they represent only a tiny proportion of the total. On the matter of drugs, libertarians argue that it is no business of the state to tell citizens what to take or not to take, and that doing so is therefore an oppressive curtailment of freedom. The drug laws, they insist, don’t work in practice, because so many people break them—with impunity or not, as the case may be.
Let us draw an analogy with speed limits. They undoubtedly curtail our freedom; they are undoubtedly unevenly enforced; and it is likewise undoubtedly true that they don’t work, in the sense that there can hardly be a single driver in the world who has not knowingly broken them. Indeed, it is probable that most drivers break speed limits every time they drive a car. But does that mean that speed limits do not work? No. Does anyone suppose that if there were no speed limits, people would not drive faster? You have only to drive on a German autobahn, where there are no speed limits, to get your answer.
Now, a libertarian would say that responsible citizens should be able to determine for themselves at what speed to drive. It doesn’t take much intelligence or judgment to do so. It must be remembered also, by analogy with the frequent harmlessness of drugs, that most speeding does not end in a fatal accident. Not all speeding is abuse of speeding, therefore; and if while speeding a person causes a fatality to others, he must take the consequences, financial and other. The prospect of those consequences should be enough to cause him to adjust his speed to what is sensible and safe; and as an adult, he is the best judge of the speed at which he is capable of driving safely. If a man gets home safe and sound, he has, ipso facto, driven at a sensible speed.
Alas, this is strange philosophical anthropology. People are not—I am not—like that. I can see that other people should not drive above a certain speed, but I cannot see that I should not do so. They, of course, have a mirror-image view: they think that they are safe and that I am dangerous. But though we all consider ourselves safe, the fact is that speeding makes us more likely to have an accident or to kill someone.
Living in a civilized society means accepting laws that one did not make oneself, and that in any given situation may seem unnecessary; one has no right to complain if punished for breaking them. I accept the law as necessary even as I break it. One is not oneself the arbiter of everything. In some circumstances, it is right to prevent potential harms to third parties such as speeding and taking drugs produce rather than to wait for them actually to occur. It is a matter of judgment, not of principle, when those circumstances exist—and in my opinion, the taking of methamphetamine falls well this side of justifiable prevention.
Of course, restrictions on freedom may become onerous, and petty regulations may whittle away freedom altogether. But all freedoms are not created equal; a hierarchy exists among them; and a restriction on the freedom to intoxicate yourself or drive down Fifth Avenue at 100 miles an hour is not to be compared with a restriction on the freedom to say what you think. Speech codes are therefore a much more serious assault on liberty than are drug laws.
First published in City Journal.