A Silver Lining in Drug Legalization

Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely and totally committed to the legalization of drugs. This includes all addictive substances, not just marijuana.

There are many good and sufficient reasons for this stance, none of which concern us today, since I wish, now, to discuss, not justifications for legalization, but, rather, one argument for prohibition, and one against legalization.

What then is the argument against legalization? Paradoxically, it is one often made by non-libertarians in favor of decriminalization. The argument goes as follows: right now, addictive drugs can only be bought and sold on the black market. As such, the government obtains no tax revenues thereby, since all these transactions are entirely off the books. However, if this industry were but recognized as a legitimate one, then its products could be taxed, just as in the case of all legal goods and services. Thus, the government could obtain more revenues than at present. And this in turn would mean either a reduction in other taxes, a lower deficit, more government services, or some combination of all three.

Any argument the conclusion of which is that the government will have more revenues at its disposal is highly problematic. For the libertarian, this is pretty much a refutation. For the state already has too much of our money, far too much. The last thing it needs is more encouragement, in the form of greater income. Yes, drugs should still be legalized, since their use and sale does not violate the libertarian non aggression axiom, but this should occur in spite of the fact that the tax take will rise, not because of it.

If, as a result, there is a reduction in other taxes, it is not readily apparent why this should be an unambiguous gain for liberty. All that would occur is that some people would pay more, and others less. If there is a lower deficit, this will even the more encourage the government in its profligate expenditure policies. Nor is an increase in government "services" an unequivocal gain, not for utility, let alone liberty. For virtually all state spending, even apart from the compulsory way in which it is financed, does far more harm than create benefit. One need only mention in this regard public schools which are educational cesspools, and foreign military adventurism which kill innocents in their thousands.

Let us now consider the second argument, that in favor of prohibition: it puts numerous criminals in jail who otherwise would not have been caught. According to some estimates, in the neighborhood of 40—60% of all inmates owe their present address to the drug laws. Some of them, probably, are guilty of no real libertarian crime at all: peacefully buying, selling and using controlled substances. And with regard to such people, the drug laws are an unmitigated disaster, morally, legally and economically. However, many of those incarcerated for drug violations are guilty of committing violent crimes, and a significant proportion of these would not be in jail but for the present prohibition of addictive substances.

Face it; the public police are an inept lot {see Rothbard, For a New Liberty; and also Tinsley, "A Case for Private Police”}. What else to you expect from an institution run on the same principles as public education, the army, the motor vehicle bureau and the post office? Were there private police, they would undoubtedly be far more efficient. But there are not. Scared citizens, then, can be excused for appreciating the fact that the drug laws put numerous miscreants behind bars who would otherwise be free to roam the streets, pillaging, rioting, robbing and raping, as is their wont.

To the extent, then, not that innocent people are imprisoned due to the drug laws, but that this applies, rather, to murderers, rapists and thieves who would not otherwise have been caught, it cannot be said that this legislation is all bad.

Gary Becker, for one, is not likely to much appreciate this argument. He maintains, to the contrary, that one of the horrors of prohibition is that so many denizens of the black inner cities are placed in jail, which wreaks havoc, he thinks, on this community. But if it is correct that a significant proportion of such people are really dangerous malefactors (even though found guilty in government courts for what libertarians would consider non crimes), then this community, to say nothing of the rest of us, is far safer under present conditions.

Becker correctly sees the high rate of incarceration of blacks as causally connected to elevated rates of illegitimacy. But he states: "Unfortunately, some states still make it difficult for two-parent families to collect welfare." Evidently, this Nobel prize-winning economist thinks that welfare is a solution to, not a source of, the travails of the black community. He seems not to have read, or perhaps not fully appreciated, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, which shows that welfare is the cause of family breakdown, not the solution to this problem.

This is rather disappointing to those who look to the University of Chicago for free market solutions. {See Karen De Coster on Chicagoite socialism. Also see the latest issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, which is entirely devoted to a rejection of this tendency from that quarter.) Perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity to expect libertarian analysis to emanate from the Windy City’s most famous university.

Let us conclude. I am not arguing in favor of drug prohibition. I favor legalization. But we should be aware that that there are real drawbacks to this stance: more money for the government, and more (real) criminals running loose.