My blog post yesterday, “Why Do Conservatives Still Love the Drug War?, generated many interesting comments on Facebook. One of the commentators made a point that both conservatives and liberals have long used to justify this failed and destructive government program: that drug usage causes harm to families and, therefore, it is justifiable for the state to punish people who ingest them.
Yet, harm is not the same thing as force or violence. Everyone would agree that the initiation of force by one human being against another is morally wrong. Initiating force against someone else violates the latter’s right to be left alone to live his live peacefully. Examples of such acts of violence are murder, rape, theft, robbery, burglary, and the like.
However, there is an entire range of human conduct that doesn’t involve the initiation of force but that can nonetheless be considered harmful, both to one’s self and to one’s family. This area of conduct involves activity that is entirely peaceful. Examples would include, say, a parent who is a dope addict, an alcoholic, a smoker, a gambler, intentionally unemployed, a lazy couch potato, or a philanderer.
Let’s agree that all those things harm the parent as well as the entire family. Does that mean that the state should wield the power to arrest, prosecute, and punish the parent for engaging in such harmful conduct?
Absolutely not! In fact, a prerequisite to a free society is the legal protection of these types of choices. As I pointed out in a 1999 article entitled “It’s Time to End the War on Drugs,”
The true test of a free society is not whether people are free to engage in what the state defines as “responsible” conduct. After all, even the Chinese and North Korean people are “free” by that standard. The real test of a free society is whether an individual is free to engage in irresponsible behavior, so long as it does not interfere, in a direct and forceful way, with the ability of others to do the same. In other words, as long as a person doesn’t murder, rape, steal, burglarize, defraud, and the like, freedom entails the right to do anything a person wants, even if it’s the most irresponsible and self-destructive thing in the world.
Another interesting point by a commentator was that drugs destroy a person’s freedom and, therefore, that the state can legitimately punish people for ingesting drugs in an attempt to protect their freedom. What the commentator is referring to, however, is the quest to attain some sort of psychological freedom, as compared to sociological freedom. For example, suppose a person has a phobia that prevents him from leaving his home. We could say that he isn’t free in a psychological sense because his phobia is interfering with his living a full life. The same could be said of, say, a drug addict or an alcoholic.
But as much as we might want to help such a person or as much as he might be trying to overcome his psychological disability, under what moral authority would we initiate force to help him overcome his problem? Under what moral authority would the state prosecute and punish him to help him attain psychological freedom?
There is no moral authority to initiate force, either personally or through the state, against such a person. He must work things out for himself to attain the psychological peace and harmony he seeks. If he chooses to give up and settle for living under such conditions, that is his right.
It is the sociological freedom with which we are concerned when it comes to the relationship between the individual and the state. In order for a person to be free in that sense, he must be accorded the right to live his life any way he chooses, so long as his conduct is peaceful. In fact, when a person is accorded the widest ambit of sociological freedom — and the choices that come with such freedom — he has the greatest potential to achieve psychological freedom as well as to nurture such character traits as responsibility and compassion for others.