Aleteia

Legalize Drugs — I Own Myself

Jonathan Piccolo
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We might need to end the Drug War, but should “self-ownership” be part of the surrender terms?

Across the country, states are examining whether marijuana ought to be decriminalized—and with excellent reason: The “Drug War” has proven as costly a failure as Prohibition, and the number of Americans who languish in prison on drug charges has grown to an outrageous 1.1 million.  It is crass to look at this ugly fact in merely monetary terms, but let’s start with dollars and cents and work upwards from there: Think of the billions it costs to keep these men away in tiny cells, under guard—away from their families, unable to raise or support their children. Think of the productive work they otherwise might have done, were they not in prison. Think of the taxes they might have paid. Think of the children who grow up without fathers. Then think of all the civil liberties we have had to sacrifice in order to make the War on Drugs possible. These civic and economic costs are laid out in stark detail in a symposium on the Drug War sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: for 10 years, I have edited their guide to U.S. education, Choosing the Right College.) Small-government advocate Doug Bandow gives the prudential case for declaring peace in the Drug War, while “bad-boy” columnist Gavin MacInnes unfolds his long love-hate affair with narcotic substances, in a column that’s aptly summed up by its title, “Legalize Pot: It’s Bad for You.”

A more troubling argument is offered by Reason editor Matthew Feeney, who also seconds the fiscal and civil liberties case for legalization—but goes further, in a direction we might not want to follow.  He argues for a principle called “self-ownership,” which lies at the heart of radical libertarian thought.  As he writes:
 

“One of the most terrifying features of the “War on Drugs” is not the human suffering that it inflicts around the world (although this should never be overlooked), but the moral assumption it is built on: the state has the right to control what you do to your body. Even if drugs were as addictive and damaging as prohibitionists say, yielding the right of self-ownership to the state would be worth resisting. If one grants the state the right to control your body it is not hard for the state to justify control over other property.”

Another columnist, a man whose work I deeply respect, echoed this sentiment in an interview with me published last fall.  The great Walter Williams, who has done more to banish nonsense from discussions of race and economics than almost anyone else, defended the sale of human organs by referring to this same principle:
 

“The true test of whether somebody owns something is whether he can sell it. If you believe in liberty, you think people can do what they wish with their property if it doesn’t violate the rights of others.”

Here I think that Dr. Williams is mistaken, that he has confused liberty with libertarianism. Not one of America’s founders understood liberty in such a radical sense, as Samuel Gregg documents in his careful historical study, Tea Party Catholic, which I had the honor of editing.  “Self-ownership” in the sense that anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard understood it would certainly have struck Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even John Locke (not to mention John Adams and the other conservative Founders) as a principle not of liberty but of “license.” A society based on license, each of them believed, would quickly degenerate into chaos, and promptly yield to tyranny.  History bears out their anxieties: Nations where the state collapses completely, as it has in Somalia, do not give way to sober collections of rational individuals respecting each other’s rights—but to feudal squabbles for power, small-scale despotism, civil war, and finally (if the inhabitants are lucky) to the rise of an autocratic state. Petty tyrants who dominated Europe during the Dark Ages (800-1050  or so) were so abusive of the rights of the peasants under their control that the rise of kings and parliaments was a step forward for liberty—albeit a small one on a very long road.  The old American slogan “ordered liberty” is a helpful one, but it’s actually redundant.  Liberty cannot exist without order.  Order is its necessary, but not sufficient, condition.  To call for “ordered liberty” is a bit like asking a car salesman for “a good minivan—one with a steering wheel and brakes.”

Let’s look at “self-ownership” a little bit more closely. There is an important core of truth in it that is worth emphasizing, after a century of totalitarian dictatorships.  Certainly, the past 100 years of history ought to make us sympathetic, right off the bat, to a presumption that each of us owns himself.  If we don’t, who does own us?  Our neighbors?  The local bishop?  The men in Washington, D.C. or at the United Nations?

A strong dose of self-ownership thinking in 1914 might have stopped the rulers of Europe from forcibly drafting millions of men to fight a brutal war over frivolous causes.  Had self-ownership prevailed in Russia, millions of peasants would not have been deprived of religious freedom, thrown off their land, deported thousands of miles to Gulag camps, starved to death, or simply shot.  Had Germans respected self-ownership, they would not have “Aryanized” (that is, looted) the property of Jews, deprived them of civil rights, and finally exterminated them in camps.  Had Japan respected self-ownership, it would not have sent its soldiers to China to engage in mass rape, organized pillage and slaughter, and use Chinese prisoners as human guinea pigs for biological weapons.  Self-ownership might have prevented the death by shooting or starvation of up to 80 million people in Mao Zedong’s Communist China.  And so on.  As R.J. Rummel documented in his classic Death By Government, in the twentieth century, States have been responsible for 133.1 million civilian deaths—and that does not include unintentional deaths caused during wartime.  Every one of those deaths was a murder.