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A Nation of Children

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President Clinton took some flak in the closing weeks of his administration when he told a Rolling Stone interviewer, “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places and should be.”

The negative reaction was so strong that a Clinton spokesman said that the president was not endorsing decriminalization. You figure it out. I guess it all depends on what your definition of “should” is.

Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development, responded, “Decriminalizing ‘small amounts of marijuana’ is simply a euphemistic way of saying it’s fine to smoke it, just don’t sell it. So we now have the president of the United States on record again saying to young people that smoking marijuana is basically OK.”

Oh really?

Let me rush to the former president’s defense. Since when is it an endorsement of an activity to say that it shouldn’t be treated as a crime? There are many things that are perfectly legal to do that would best be avoided. Bungee jumping is the first example that springs to mind, but there are many others. Did you ever hear anyone say, “By making bungee jumping legal, we are sending a message to our kids that such risky behavior is OK”? Some people enthusiastically endorse bungee jumping. Search the World Wide Web and you’ll find people who call it “the ultimate rush.”

But is it accurate to say “we” — meaning Society or The Country — are telling kids that they should bungee jump? I don’t think so.

Some people just don’t get the point of a free society. The freedom to do something doesn’t mean you ought to do that thing. How basic can you get?

Yet we seem to want to teach our children the opposite lesson: if something is legal, then it is OK to do it. And that leads to the view that we should legalize only those things we want people to do. That’s just nutty.

Under what used to be known as “liberalism” (today we say “classical liberalism”), people were free to do anything except that which was expressly (and justly) prohibited by the law, such as murder, robbery, rape, and the like. On the other hand, government could do nothing except that which was expressly (and justly) permitted to it. To use the imagery of political philosopher Stephen Macedo, government power constituted a few islands in a sea of liberty.

All that has changed now, thanks to the gang that appropriated the word “liberalism” about a century ago. Today, continuing with Macedo’s analogy, liberty constitutes a few islands in a sea of government power. We are quickly heading toward a situation in which, as someone once put it, everything that is not forbidden is required. In other words: total government. The price is the liberty, self-responsibility, and dignity of the individual. Contrary to the attitude of so many people today, that is no small price. As Charles Murray, author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian, self-responsibility is what keeps our lives from being trivial. Everyone pays lip service to self-responsibility. But what is so misunderstood is that self-responsibility requires freedom. Try imagining one without the other. It’s like trying to square the circle. It cannot be done.

The American political system has been seized by the idea that there are areas in which individuals may not be permitted liberty and self-responsibility. Drugs are one such area. A hundred years ago people were trusted with the freedom and responsibility of self-medication. They could freely buy opiates and marijuana; Coca-Cola contained cocaine. A small percentage of the population harmed themselves with those substances. But there was no drug problem. The drug problem was born the day government began passing laws depriving people of freedom and responsibility. Those laws gave us black markets with their attendant violence, organized crime, and law-enforcement corruption. They did something worse — if worse can be imagined. They infantilized the American people. The results were predictable. The sphere of freedom and self-responsibility sphere shrank radically — a point where no one is responsible for anything anymore.

If you treat adults like children, many of them will come to believe that that is what they are.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.