The Libertarian Case For Drug Prohibition

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Ok, ok, already, hold onto your horses. I have not given up on libertarianism. Nor have I finally, and completely, succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. It is just that since all of us who favor economic freedom oppose drug prohibition, the contentious part of my personality naturally looks around for reasons on the other side of this debate.

That, plus the fact that I had the unfortunate experience at a recent conference I attended of hearing a supposed libertarian "defend" drug legalization; he did so in such a manner that I didn’t have to be particularly quarrelsome or defensive about libertarianism to oppose him. Moreover, the fact that this seminar was constructed in such a manner that I was not able to publicly criticize the outrageous case he offered made it all the more important that I somehow get this off my chest. You, gentle reader, will have to stand in for the audience I might have otherwise addressed.

So, what are the reasons, in general, for maintaining the status quo regarding the prohibition of addictive substances?

1. Without this law, our movies, television programming, plays, novels and other vehicles of story telling would be much less enriched than now they are. Award winning television series such as Law and Order and The Sopranos would be particularly hard hit by repeal. It is an exaggeration to say that programming of this ilk contains nothing but this motif, but not by much. Surely, at least half of the themes explored in the cops and robbers genre depend upon the fact that there is a black market in marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

2. Were addictive materials to be legalized a whole host of jobs would be lost. (Look, I said I would give reasons in support of prohibition; I did not say I would give good ones in this regard. As far as I am concerned, there are no good reasons. I am willing to defend the "undefendable," but this is not undefendable.) We are talking, here, about judges, policemen, jail guards, social workers, lawyers, district attorneys, social workers, psychologists, munitions makers, small planes and boats, etc. bloody etc. Could it be that one of the strongest reasons for the retention of this horrid law is this self same fact? I wonder. Not, of course, that jobs are needed. That is the unfortunate legacy of Keynes and Keynesianism. As every Austrian from Mises to Hazlitt to Rothbard has shown, it is not rational to create jobs merely for the sake of creating jobs. We could all be employed digging ditches and filling them in again, and would starve as a result. No, the whole point of jobs is to create goods and services of value, and the ones that come about as a result of drug prohibition hardly qualify.

What, then, are the obnoxious reasons offered by this "libertarian" in behalf of drug legalization?

3. The present drug laws bring about a general disrespect for law and order, and this is something to be greatly regretted. But this is highly problematic from the libertarian perspective. Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? But how many laws are there today? This is hard to determine. Probably no one knows to an exactitude, even as of any given date (there are new ones coming on board every day). It depends upon whether or not administrative decisions should be counted; and why not? If so, laws presumably number in the millions. Literally.

And, of these, how many are good laws, e.g., enactments compatible with the libertarian axiom of non-aggression? Well, let’s see. There are laws against murder, theft, trespass, fraud, kidnapping, assault and battery, rape… I am quickly running out of examples. Well, I suppose we can pick up a few more, possibly, from the Ten Commandments; and defense of contracts from the civil law. But that is about it.

So, it is pro libertarian to promote a general respect for law? Hardly. Virtually all law is bad law. Only an infinitesimal percentage of all law is good law. Respecting law in general, then, is to promote evil. How, then, are we to regard favoring the repeal of drug laws on the ground that they reduce respect for law in general? Whatever else may be said about this contention, it cannot be claimed that it is compatible with libertarianism.

4. The economist goes on and on, ad nauseum, about how he as an economist needs data for public policy analysis. Without data, he never tires of telling us, it is impossible to make an informed decision as to whether or not addictive substances should be legalized.

But this is stuff and nonsense. Whether or not drugs should be prohibited by law is a matter of normative economics. Data, in stark contrast, is part and parcel of positive economics. To be sure, in some moral systems, e.g., utilitarianism, the latter is not irrelevant to the former. But for the deontological libertarian, it comes down to a matter of rights. Does the (adult) individual have to right to inject into his body whatever he pleases, harmful or not? And the answer is, of course he does.

It is more than passing curious that this economics professor, after recounting the necessity of data, and bewailing its absence, nevertheless takes the pro-legalization side of this debate. Perhaps the statistics are not that necessary after all.

5. According to the speaker at this conference I am criticizing, the market price of a pound of marijuana is presently about $3,000. He estimates that the total costs under legalization would be something of the order of $3 per pound. Thus, the profit (plus the black market costs, given that this market is illegal) amount to some $2,997, or 99.9% of the total.

This speaker "doesn’t like" the people who are presently enjoying this differential. He favors legalization, so that they will no longer have access to these funds. He full well realizes that when and if the government legalizes this product, it will tax the stuffing out of it, just as it presently does in the cases of booze and tobacco. He offers as yet another reason for legalizing marijuana that this will, in one fell swoop, take the profits away from the present producers.

Now I full well sympathize with this professor’s assessment of your typical denizen of the drug market. He is mean and vicious, fully willing and able to use violence against police, competitors, sometimes even customers. It is thanks to him and his confreres that we have a new word to describe innocent victims of drug gang warfare: "mushrooms." His product is oft-time poisonous, and the dosage uncertain. These are altogether a pretty despicable lot of people. Of course, as is well known in the libertarian community, these characteristics stem, entirely, from the illegal status of drugs. During alcohol prohibition, the proprietors were similar to today’s drug dealers. Nowadays, under legalization of beer, wine and liquor, the purveyors are indistinguishable from those who manufacture cheese or chalk.

However, with whom are we comparing these very bad people? (Typical economist’s joke; question: "How’s your wife?" answer: "Compared to whom?") Answer: we are comparing them with the government! How many innocent people have all the drug gangs in the world murdered? A couple of hundred? A couple of thousand? A few tens of thousands? In contrast, according to R. J. Rummel, Death By Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996), governments are responsible for killing no fewer than about 170 million of their own residents and citizens in the 20th century; we are talking non-combatants here. This economist wants data? Here is data. What can we say about the moral status of a commentator who favors a public policy (partially) on the ground that a gang responsible for a relative handful of deaths will be deprived of financial resources, and that they will be given over to a different gang of people who have killed millions?

Yes, by all means, let us legalize drugs. (I told you I’m still a libertarian). And, perhaps, our plays and movies will be less dramatic. But there will be no gain from decriminalization concerning jobs, or respect for law, or better allocation of funds from drug gang to government gang.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professors of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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