Calvin Freiburger

Is Drug Legalization about Liberty? Not So Fast

Posted on June 21 2010 1:00 pm
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.
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As if one hot-button cultural debate recently engulfing NRB wasn’t enough, strong opinions about drug legalization have been in the air lately, too. (Okay, that pun was bad even by my standards.  Sorry.) Over at Reason, Radley Balko observes that Sean Hannity and John Stossel recently had the same fight:

Unfortunately, Fox Business seems to have edited the exchange considerably to fit in one segment, in doing so leaving out some of the most potentially illuminating elements, such as what happened after Hannity challenged Stossel’s statistics. But Hannity’s main point comes through loud and clear: prohibiting drugs is legitimate because of the harm drugs can make users do to others.

I’ve said before that drug policy is low on my political priority list, and for that reason I usually abstain from debates on the subject (though I’m definitely with Ann Coulter when she says it’s not a victimless crime for the simple fact that, thanks to the welfare state, the rest of us pay the price of druggies’ stupid decisions—why are we even talking about legalization before making the crime truly victimless?). However, maybe I can help narrow the focus a bit.

The libertarian position sees drug use as a matter of personal freedom, but I’m not so sure.  John Locke believed that freedom was not simply “liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases,” but liberty to “have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.” Locke also held that freedom over one’s own body was not absolute (emphasis added):

…a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it.


But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself

If human beings don’t have the right to enslave themselves to other people, it stands to reason that they can’t enslave themselves to other things, either, providing a philosophical justification for prohibiting addictive substances in a free society. This is one of the reasons the freedom to use drugs ranks so low on my sympathy meter, though I might be persuaded that society should tolerate such self-enslavement—if legalization proponents could prove that drugs’ harmful effects really were limited to the user. I absolutely reject the idea that we can be free to impair our senses or mental faculties enough to make us a threat to others.

David Kaplan cites two studies indicating that behavioral impairment from marijuana is a real concern.  Hannity points out that after Amsterdam legalized cannabis, the opposite of libertarians’ rosy predictions happened: drug violence is way up. If we are to change the United States’ current drug policies, the burden is on legalization advocates to explain why these concerns are groundless after all, that there isn’t a behavior-altering aspect to the drugs to be legalized after all.  Until then, spare us the talk of “personal freedom” and “legislating morality,” if you please.

Yes, the same can be said of alcohol.  No, I’m not interested in criminalizing alcohol.  But y’know what? I actually don’t feel any philosophical devotion to alcohol’s legality, either—merely a practical judgment that alcohol consumption has been so engrained as a legitimate societal practice for so long, that trying to turn things around on that front would probably be more trouble than it was worth (although, by the way, Prohibition was a tad more effective than you’ve probably heard).

At the very least, can we agree to do away with the idiotic phrase “War on Drugs”?  Calling something a “war” presupposes some sort of ending point, enabling legalization advocates to insipidly proclaim we’ve “lost” the war because…people still do drugs. But obviously, we don’t enact criminal law because we expect to completely eradicate the practice of something for the rest of time. If we did, we would have thrown in the towel on the “war” on murder or “war” on theft ages ago.

That might not be much common ground, but it’s something.  How about it, fellas?


Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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