Why aren’t more Americans libertarians? Why aren’t more liberals becoming libertarians? They generally share the libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, civil liberties, personal freedom, privacy, and the Fourth Amendment, or at least they claim to do so. Why aren’t more conservatives becoming libertarians? They generally share the libertarian commitment to the free market, limited government, free trade, property rights, and the Second Amendment, or at least they claim to do so.
Libertarianism is the philosophy of nonaggression. Aggression is theft, fraud, the initiation of non-consensual violence, or the threat of nonconsensual violence. The initiation or threat of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong. Aggression is justified only in defense of one’s person or property or in retaliation against aggression toward those things, but is neither essential nor required. Violence is justified only against violence. No violence may be used against a non-aggressor. Nonaggression is the essence of libertarianism and the sole libertarian creed. One’s lifestyle has nothing to do with it.
Libertarians believe that people should be free to live their life any way they desire, accumulate wealth, and engage in any economic activity they choose as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. In a libertarian society,
the only actions prohibited involve the initiation of violence against person (murder, rape, assault, et cetera) or property (robbery, embezzlement, arson, et cetera). Libertarianism respects personal privacy, financial privacy, free thought, individual responsibility, freedom of conscience, free exchange, free markets, and private property. Libertarianism celebrates individual liberty, personal freedom, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, free enterprise, free assembly, free association, free speech, and free expression as long as they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Although many, if not most, Americans might say that they basic-ally agree with such a philosophy, they still hesitate to fully embrace libertarianism. Why is that? It turns out that once you narrow the conversation or focus on a specific issue, you find that these Americans are very selective about what they actually accept from the libertarian philosophy. Many of their claims to share certain libertarian commitments are hollow. And among liberals and conservatives — including even those who do share many libertarian commitments — there is universally a great sticking point to their full embrace of libertarianism.
The sticking point
The libertarian sticking point is the war on drugs. Now, this is not the only thing that liberals and conservatives find problematic about libertarianism. They sometimes falsely charge libertarians with being pacifists, idealists, isolationists, too individualistic, materialistic, libertines, hedonists, or irreligious. They sometimes mischaracterize libertarianism as being utopian, immoral, or impractical and reducing everything to economics, always supporting big business, having no compassion for the poor, rejecting tradition, celebrating alternative life-styles, and being unconcerned about social justice. But when it comes to specific issues, the drug war is universally the sticking point.
What is it that libertarians believe about drugs and the drug war that bothers liberals and conservatives so much about libertarianism? It can be summarized in two words: drug freedom. They mean that —
- The war on drugs should be ended immediately and completely.
- There should be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, manufacturing, advertising, using, or possessing of any drug for any reason.
- All government agencies devoted to fighting the war on drugs should be eliminated.
- All government bureaucrats who work for those agencies, from the drug czar on down to the janitors, should be permanently laid off.
- All government efforts to study and classify drugs and conduct surveys and issue reports on drug use should be ended.
- All government programs and advertising that seek to prevent drug abuse or warn about the dangers of drugs should be ended.
- All incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders should be pardoned and released from prison.
- There should be a free market in drugs without any government interference in the form of regulation, oversight, restrictions, taxing, rules, or licensing.
Why do libertarians say what seems to liberals and conservatives to be such radical things? Libertarians reason that —
Everyone should be free to live his live in any manner he chooses as long as his activities are nonviolent, nondisorderly, nondisruptive, non-threatening, and noncoercive.
Everyone should be free to pursue happiness in his own way even if his choices are deemed by others to be harmful, unhealthy, unsafe, immoral, unwise, stupid, destructive, or irresponsible.
Individuals, not government bureaucrats, should be free to decide what risks they are willing to take and what behaviors are in their own best interests.
Private organizations and individuals, not government programs and bureaucrats, are the solution to any problems resulting from drug abuse.
Buyers and sellers should be free to exchange with each other for mutual gain any product of their choosing.
Everyone should be free to engage in any economic enterprise or activity of his choosing without license, permission, restriction, interference, or regulation from government as long as he doesn’t commit violence against others, violate their property rights, or defraud them in some way.
Once the government claims control over what a man can lawfully put into his mouth, nose, and bloodstream, there is no limit to its power.
Government attempts to protect people from bad habits, harmful substances, or vice lead to greater evils.
Every crime needs a tangible and identifiable victim, not a potential or possible victim. Drug use is the quintessential victimless crime.
A free society has to include the right of people to take risks, practice bad habits, partake of addictive conduct, engage in self-destructive behavior, exercise poor judgment, live an unhealthy lifestyle, participate in immoral activities, commit vice, and undertake dangerous actions — including the use and abuse of drugs.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks for many Americans — liberal and conservative — when he says that he opposes the legalization of marijuana and wants to intensify the war on drugs. He is okay with a police state as long as it combats what he considers to be “hedonistic activity.” Other Americans feel differently about marijuana — but just marijuana. Some Americans favor the decriminalization of marijuana with civil fines or mandatory drug treatment for possessors instead of arrest and jail. Some Americans favor the legalization of marijuana just for medical use. Some Americans also favor the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
Americans who hold those three differing positions on the relaxing of marijuana prohibition laws nevertheless have three things in common. One, they support heavy government regulation of and restrictions on marijuana possession. Two, they don’t extend their liberality to the so-called drug trafficking of marijuana. And three, they aren’t interested in relaxing prohibition laws relating to other drugs such as LSD, crystal meth, cocaine, or heroin. In all three cases, those Americans still want a Drug Enforcement Agency, still want a Controlled Substances Act, still want a drug war, and still want a nanny state. Why? Because using drugs is addictive, unhealthy, dangerous, or self-destructive. Because using drugs is immoral, sinful, a vice, or evil. Because using drugs may have societal costs, have unintended consequences, lead to crime to support one’s drug habit, lead to financial ruin, lead to neglect of one’s children, or lead to premature death.
There is a four-pronged solution to breaching the libertarian sticking point: the utilitarian, the practical, the constitutional, and the philosophical.
The first part of the solution to the libertarian sticking point is the utilitarian one. The war on drugs is a complete and total failure. It has utterly failed to prevent drug use; reduce drug abuse; end drug overdoses; reduce the demand for drugs; keep drugs out of the hands of addicts, prisoners, teenagers, and children; help drug addicts get treatment who want it; stop the violence associated with drug trafficking; and have any impact on the availability of most drugs in the United States.
Instead, the war on drugs has destroyed personal and financial privacy, negated personal responsibility and accountability, hindered legitimate pain management, hampered the treatment of debilitating diseases, turned doctors into criminals, unreasonably inconvenienced retail shopping, fostered violence, corrupted law enforcement, militarized the police, clogged the judicial system with non-crimes, turned America’s inner cities into war zones, swelled prison populations with nonviolent offenders, made criminals out of hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Americans, eroded civil liberties, violated property rights, and weakened the Fourth Amendment.
The war on drugs has financial and human costs that far exceed any of its supposed benefits. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars even as it has ruined more lives than drugs themselves.
The second part of the solution to the libertarian sticking point is the practical one. There are plenty of other activities aside from drug use that Americans consider to be dangerous, but they don’t want laws to prohibit them or federal agencies to enforce such laws. Things such as mountain climbing, cliff diving, skydiving, bungee jumping, boxing, pro wrestling, MMA fighting, auto racing, and using a chainsaw. There are plenty of other activities aside from drug use that Americans consider to be immoral but don’t want laws to prohibit them or federal agencies to enforce such laws. Things such as adultery, fornication, topless dancing, living in a nudist colony, gambling, and viewing pornography. There are plenty of other activities aside from drug use that Americans consider to be unhealthy but don’t want laws to prohibit them or federal agencies to enforce such laws. Things such as drinking energy drinks, eating junk food, drinking large sugar-laden soft drinks, consuming high-fructose corn syrup, eating food containing trans fats, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.
And regarding cigarettes and alcohol, everything bad that could be said regarding drug use could equally be said of tobacco and alcohol use. Tobacco use not only costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars every year in medical costs and lost productivity, but is the cause of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and smoking-related diseases. Alcohol is also one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. It is a regular factor in drownings, home accidents, suicides, pedestrian accidents, fires, violent crimes, divorces, boating accidents, child-abuse cases, sex crimes, and auto accidents. It is a contributing factor in many cases of cancer, mental illness, anemia, cardiovascular disease, dementia, cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and suppression of the immune system.
And then there is the fact that legal drugs — prescribed and administered by physicians — kill thousands every year by means of overdose or reactions with other drugs. Even over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin and Tylenol kill hundreds of Americans every year.
It certainly makes no sense for the government to wage war on “illegal” drugs when tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs kill far more people every year.
The third part of the solution to the libertarian sticking point is the constitutional one. That is because the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have a war on drugs. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to intrude itself into the personal eating, drinking, or smoking habits of Americans. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have a drug czar, an Office of National Drug Control Policy, or a Drug Enforcement Administration. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have a Controlled Substances Act, a Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, or a Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have a National Drug Control Strategy, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or a Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to restrict or oversee any harmful, unhealthy, or mood-altering substances that any American wants to consume. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to prohibit the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, manufacturing, advertising, bartering, trading, using, possessing, or “trafficking” of any drug for any reason. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to ban any substance.
When progressives in and out of the national government sought to institute alcohol prohibition after World War I, they knew they could do it on the national level only by amending the Constitution. That is why the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1919. The Volstead Act to prohibit the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” could not be passed by Congress until after the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment.
The fourth part of the solution to the libertarian sticking point is the philosophical one. It is just simply not a legitimate purpose of government to wage war on drugs. It is not the purpose of government to study drugs, classify drugs, restrict drugs, prohibit drugs, or seek to prevent drug use. It is not the purpose of government to punish people for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. It is not the purpose of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control what a man desires to smoke, drink, inject, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs. It is not the purpose of government to prevent people from practicing bad habits, partaking in risky behavior, performing addictive actions, or engaging in immoral activities. It is not the purpose of government to protect people from harmful substances, unhealthy practices, dangerous activities, or vice. It is not the purpose of government to control what people buy, sell, trade, manufacture, or distribute.
In a free society, the only possible legitimate functions of government are defense, judicial, and policing activities. Because libertarians consistently extend the nonaggression principle to acts of government, they believe there is no justification for any government action beyond keeping the peace; prosecuting, punishing, and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against the person or property of others; and constraining those who would attempt to interfere with the peaceful actions of others. In a free society, government neither legislates morality nor prohibits actions that do not involve the initiation of violence against person or property. In a free society, government leaves alone those who don’t initiate violence against the person or property of others so that they might pursue their own happiness, engage in commerce of their own choosing, and do what they want with their body and their property.
The war on drugs is incompatible with a free society. It is an assault on individual liberty, private property, limited government, and the free market. A philosophy of freedom and nonaggression has no sticking points.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.