Libertarians, unlike conservatives and leftists, believe that people should be free to live their lives any way they wish, as long as their conduct remains peaceful. That is, as long as people do not murder, rape, steal, loot, plunder, defraud, and so forth, they have the absolute right to engage in any peaceful activity. Thus, many libertarians believe that government has only three legitimate functions: to arrest, prosecute, and punish those who initiate violence against others; to operate a judiciary with the monopoly power to enforce its judgments, which enables people to peacefully resolve their civil disputes; and to protect the nation from invaders.
Libertarians believe that there should be no drug laws, pornography laws, sodomy laws, adultery laws, or coveting laws — no laws whatsoever that regulate peaceful behavior.
Obviously, this approach is totally different from that of conservatives. Conservatives believe that government should and must regulate the moral decisions and activities of the American people. Their reasoning is as follows: Americans are an irresponsible people and thus cannot be free to engage in wrongful conduct. If Americans were free to engage in immoral conduct, they would immediately engage in it, say the conservatives. When Americans become responsible, then — and only then — will it be permissible to repeal the laws that regulate peaceful behavior.
An example: drug laws. Conservatives say: If we repealed drug laws, Americans would rush out to the drug stores (which would then be free to sell drugs) and purchase syringes and heroin, because Americans are just desperately waiting for drug laws to be repealed to shoot heroin into their veins. When Americans are no longer so irresponsible, say the conservatives, we will be able to repeal drug laws.
(Of course, conservatives are also big advocates of public schooling, another area where government regulates peaceful activity. It’s always fun to ask conservatives, “Why are Americans such irresponsible drug nuts? Didn’t they all spend large portions of their waking hours in public schools? And if that’s what public schools produce, why in the world do we want to do it to more generations?” Conservatives usually scowl at that one and walk away.)
What conservatives fail to recognize is that if people are irresponsible, immoral, or incompetent, a government-regulated system will only make the situation worse. Individuals need to have the widest ambit of freedom in order to achieve what most of us want: a society of responsible, caring, competent, moral, and ethical people. Free will — and the individual consequences that come with it — helps to elevate people’s conscience and consciousness.
But isn’t it dangerous, conservatives ask, to simply repeal drug laws without being assured that people have become responsible? Of course. Throughout history, freedom has always been dangerous because it is impossible to predict the outcomes of a society in which people have free choice. It is theoretically possible that if drug laws were repealed today, every single American would start injecting heroin into his veins tomorrow.
But is that likely? After all, if someone desires or needs heroin today, it is unlikely that a criminal law, even one with harsh penalties, dissuades him from doing whatever is necessary to satisfy his habit.
Actually, drug laws make a bad situation worse. How? By artificially restricting the supply of heroin for the addict, they cause prices to skyrocket. Thus, the addict faces a difficult choice: he can give up his habit (not an easy task, even with such dangerous and life-threatening drugs as tobacco and alcohol) or get the money to pay the exorbitant black-market price of the heroin. Unfortunately, the choice he makes is usually the latter, which means committing robberies, burglaries, thefts, and other violent crimes to get the money. After all, when was the last time you saw a wino committing a robbery to get the money to pay for his addiction?
Ironically, conservatives, who usually are strong advocates of “individual responsibility,” never themselves take responsibility for the violent crimes that come with drug laws. Like the leftists who defend the welfare state, conservatives say, “We should be judged by our good intentions, not by the actual consequences of our beliefs and actions.”
Would drug legalization result in less drug addiction? It is impossible to say. Again, a free society is one in which people are free to engage in irresponsible conduct, as long as it is peaceful. It is the role of government to protect the exercise of such choices, especially when they are the “wrong ones.” If people are “free” to make only “responsible” choices (as they are in China, North Korea, and Cuba), then they cannot be considered free.
There is a good possibility, however, that drug addiction would diminish in a free society. For one, the mystique of illegality will have been removed. But more fundamentally, drug addiction is usually a psychological problem. The best way to kick it is for a person to bring it to the surface, talk about it, and try to figure out the reasons that he is engaging in self-destructive conduct. Because drug addiction is driven underground by criminal penalties, addicts are scared to death to be open about their addictions, for fear that their children, their neighbors, or their friends will turn them in to the authorities.
Conservatives argue that drug addiction can be ended with years of incarceration. But that really hasn’t proven to be the case. For one thing, the authorities can’t even keep drugs out of well-guarded prisons. But again, simply depriving an addict of his drug doesn’t get at the root of the problem. As long as the underlying psychological causes haven’t been addressed, the addict will simply engage in some other self-destructive conduct.
Conservatives argue that drug legalization would send out a bad message — that society condones the use of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. But why does that have to be the case? Wouldn’t it actually send out the following message: that Americans value freedom above all else?
Moreover, while conservatives want government to regulate most areas of morality, there are some areas that at least some conservatives would oppose regulating. Take, for instance, adultery. Every conservative would agree that adultery is morally wrong and that it is destructive of one of society’s fundamental institutions — the family. Yet, when you ask conservatives whether they believe that adultery should be criminalized, they say “No — this would not be good.” And when you ask them, “Doesn’t this mean that you and society are sending out a bad message — that you and society are condoning adultery?” — they simply respond, “That is different.”
And the same is true when you confront conservatives with such peaceful activity as coveting a neighbor’s wife or goods. Many of them do not wish to criminalize that sin, but they aren’t concerned about sending out a wrong message.
In other words, in some areas of peaceful sin, conservatives still cherish the principles of freedom. The task that we libertarians have is to persuade conservatives to expand this limited commitment to liberty to all areas of peaceful conduct. To paraphrase a libertarian friend of mine, who is a minister, conservatives must be taught that sin that involves peaceful conduct is just too important an item to be left in the hands of the government.
It is impossible to predict the outcome of a free society, except in the following way: it would undoubtedly be an exciting, dynamic place in which to live. Imagine — everyone would be free to live his life the way he wants, as long as he didn’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same. And the police would be able to focus their entire attention on protecting us from the small minority of murderers, rapists, thieves, robbers, and the like.
Some people would devote their lives to accumulating wealth; but the only way they could do that is by providing goods and services that other people want. Some people would take vows of poverty, but they still would have higher standards of living (housing, cars, food, and so forth) than those doing the same in unfree, poverty-stricken societies. Some people would spend their wealth, creating opportunities for businesses and employees in consumer-oriented businesses. Others would save their wealth, creating opportunities for banks and those in capital-oriented businesses. Others would donate their wealth, creating opportunities for churches, museums, universities, libraries, opera houses, and other eleemosynary enterprises. Most people would probably engage in a combination of some or all of these things.
People would be free to travel and trade anywhere in the world without passports or other political permission. They would be free to engage in any mutually beneficial transaction, exchange, or contract with anyone in the world. They would be free to use any media of exchange they wished — gold or silver coins, American Express banknotes, or whatever.
The production of goods and services would skyrocket, with consumers directing production through their buying and abstention from buying. Some businesses would go bust, but only because consumers were re-allocating capital through their spending habits. Overall, capital would continue to accumulate, resulting in ever-increasing wage rates for workers.
Since every individual is different from every other individual, the choices that people would make in their daily lives would vary in an infinite number of ways. Some would live as saints. Others would live as devils. Most people would live as a combination of the two, struggling to find meaning for their lives in the relatively short journey from birth to death. With freedom would come the responsibility to accept the consequences of choices, with the probable outcome being higher levels of conscious and conscientious living.
Freedom would bring an excitement, the likes of which those who have lived all of their lives in the stagnant cesspool of the socialistic welfare state and regulated society cannot imagine. It would undoubtedly bring higher standards of living, peace, harmony, and the values — responsibility, compassion, and morality — that all of us hold dear.