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Friday, April 04, 2008

The Year Zero Problem

Personally, I don’t have any real problem with drug legalization – in general, most morals legislation (drug and alcohol prohibition, anti-gambling laws, prostitution laws, and so forth) is a hangover from the 19th and early 20th Century progressives, of whom I am not particularly fond in any case.

The problem that I have with drug legalization TODAY is what I like to call the “Year Zero Problem.”

Put simply, I think that if we were to ONLY legalize drugs today – while leaving all other elements of our present social, political, and economic arrangements intact – it would be a fiasco.  We’d have human rights tribunals ruling that drug abuse is a human right (see the case of the man hauled before the tribunal for telling someone not to smoke pot in front of his bar),  we’d be forced – especially now that drug use was legal – to expand social spending to cope with its consequences.  Especially since, of course, we wouldn’t have nearly so many options for putting drug users in jail then.  More than that, drugs are at least as destructive to human health as tobacco – the only way that people who produced drugs would be able to stay in business would be if we provided them with total immunity from lawsuits.  What do you think that a contemporary jury would award to the family of a sympathetic former honour-student who died of a Heroin overdose if there was some big, evil corporation that a lawyer could point to and excoriate?

The problem with most libertarian solutions is that they require something like a clean slate to be implemented.  One cannot get rid of large-scale social programs (on a permanent basis, at any rate) without first ensuring that people have the tools to survive without them.  You can’t transform the currency, banking, and trade systems without first untangling the existing mess.  You can’t legalize drugs without a civil society which is strong enough to control the results.

Too many libertarians think that we can simply declare it to be Year Zero and that we’d suddenly rediscover self-reliance and full individual liberty.  I think that’s a grossly optimistic assessment.  I think that, in reality, most people would end up like those people in the Ghetto after the 1992 LA Riots, lined up in front of the destroyed post office waiting for welfare cheques which weren’t coming that week.  Or like the people in the path of Hurricane Katrina who just sat there and waited for the government to help them.

And even if you are as cold-blooded as I am accused of being and dismiss such people as simply the collateral damage in the course of the construction of paradise (an attitude which inches dangerously close to Whittaker Chambers’ comment that, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber — go!"), do you really believe that our fellow citizens feel the same way?  The result of a botched attempt at libertarianism is likely to be more socialism, not less.

Say, by magic, Ron Paul were to be elected President of the United States and to, by some further magic, do away with the Federal Reserve and then return to some form of the Gold Standard?  What do you think happens next?  Those who’ve thought beyond that know what happens next: next there’s a global depression, because the reforms implemented – whatever their merits – have just destroyed the entire world financial and banking systems. 

The end result of Ron Paul – or anyone else with similar views – ever getting power would be the exact reverse of the desired result since a reform as radical as what he and his friends propose would result in an economic collapse and catastrophe so severe that the other side would take power with a vengeance.

Indeed, for my libertarian friends, I would suggest to you that that is the implication of what Ms. Rand writes in Atlas Shrugged.  Rand wants to turn the clock back to the imagined Garden of Eden which existed before socialism, and she proposes to do that by triggering the collapse of the socialistic society which she imagines.  Note that her heroes don’t do it by winning elections or convincing people – they do it by engineering the destruction of society and then afterwards stepping in to rule the remainder of the proles as some kind of technocratic (and thoroughly un-democratic) clique.  Call her proposals “Libertarian Fascism” if you will.

In reality, of course, the “looters” and the masses are not nearly so stupid or incompetent as Rand and her modern-day acolytes seem to believe.  If given the chance, by the sort of cascading collapse that a shoddy attempt to turn the clock back to year zero would create, they would take charge in an instant – and plenty of people of creativity and industry would be willing to collaborate with them, especially having seen the disorder caused by the alternative.

One also calls to mind Robert Graves’ magnificent books I, Claudius and Claudius the God.  In them the reluctant Roman Emperor Claudius wishes to restore the old Republic, only to discover that the Romans themselves – having lived for so long under his own benign tyranny – have no desire to follow him in it.  In order to change things, he resolves to restore the Republic through what might be termed a Randian solution – putting Nero and his abominable mother in charge in order that tyranny may burn so hot as to awaken then Roman people in order that Claudius’ son, Britannicus, may return and restore the Republic.  The plan fails because even Claudius’ own son has no use for the Republic – he wishes to be Emperor himself.  Nero’s tyranny fails to result in the return of the Republic but, instead, leads to his overthrown and the creation of a new line of Caesars who will perpetuate the Empire for centuries more.

Liberty cannot be imposed on a people who don’t want it.  Indeed, the result of granting liberty to those who are unprepared for it – those who live, as we do in the West, so far removed from its consequences, is certain to be disaster. 

In an ideal world, ending the drug war would eliminate a waste of resources, end the crime that revolves around the drug trade, and help to clean up the streets.

In our world, however, ending the drug war would do none of these things.  Legalizing drugs would not end the waste of resources, since we’d have to put more money into social services.  It would also probably increase drug use, as the availability of drugs increased and more people tried them.

It won’t even end most of the drug-related crime that plagues us, since most drug crime – and in particular most drug crime which touches you or me – involves property theft to pay for drugs.  I doubt, even, if it would put an end to drug trafficking since taxes and regulations are likely to result in legal drug prices higher than street ones – and since legal drugs are likely to be adulterated and of inferior potency when compared with illicit ones.

If we want to turn the clock back to a time of freedom, we have to do it one minute – one second even – at a time.  Among the first battles in such a war will be to end the use of our school system as a propaganda conduit for socialism and reforming our social services – especially Medicare – in such a way as to begin to restore the principles of individual responsibility and choice.

Posted by Adam T. Yoshida on April 4, 2008 in Canadian Conservative Politics | Permalink


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"...most morals legislation (drug and alcohol prohibition, anti-gambling laws, prostitution laws, and so forth) is a hangover from the 19th and early 20th Century progressives..."

That's so true! The Christian conservatives have long been supporters of legalizing drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I think one of the Popes in the early 1900s took the lead on these issues. Stupid "progressives"!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-04-04 9:17:20 PM

Fact Check, get your facts straight.

The 19th and early 20th Century "Progressives" were a Christian movement. Indeed, they're at least as much the parents of the modern religious right as they are those of the people who use their names.

People on the left want to call themselves "progressive" and claim only half of the legacy of their intellectual forefathers (anti-child labour laws and the like). But, in reality, prohibition - and drug laws - are their legacy as well.

Read up on the history of most vice laws. They generally all tend to have been passed (or taken seriously) in the closing years of the 19th Century and the opening ones of the 20th. There's a reason for that.

It's not to say that everyone in the 19th Century throught that drinking, dope, and whoring around were the best things ever (or to say that I do), but simply that most people were rather Earthy in those days and accepted simply as a matter of course, as a fact of life.

The idea that we might correct human nature through legislation is at the root of progressivism.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-04-04 9:31:44 PM

Fact Check, which scriptural base are these so-called conservative believers building their case for a Christ-sanctioned version of prostitution and/or mind altering drug use? Authority figures or not, if they're contradicting Christ they're off the reservation, so to speak.

Posted by: Pattern Recognition | 2008-04-04 9:35:19 PM

"The problem with most libertarian solutions is that they require something like a clean slate to be implemented."

And the problem with statist solutions is that they compound the failure of government with more government.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-04-04 10:09:27 PM

...which is why I propose unwinding government, one twirl at a time.

It's kind of like dealing with a ball of yarn. If you try to unravel it by simply hacking to the centre, you'll make an awful mess of things - and tear it to pieces.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-04-04 10:15:57 PM

Why in the world would we grant drug dealers immunity from lawsuits?

Never mind that it violates the premise of your own straw-man argument (namely that we change nothing else in our society)

Tort reform and strict liability are foundations of Libertarianism.

If we are going to legalize it, then I say the dealer has to take the risk of lawsuit, and let the chips fall wehre they may. I see no compelling reason to guarantee big drug dealing businesses remain in business.

Posted by: keivn houston | 2008-04-04 11:16:00 PM

>"One cannot get rid of large-scale social programs (on a permanent basis, at any rate) without first ensuring that people have the tools to survive without them."

People will NEVER have the tools to survive the removal of welfare because within the welfare system there is no real life-incentive to induce people to overcome their difficulties.

It is like saying people shouldn't have their first child until they know how to be a parent.

The welfare state simply has to end and people have to learn to find their own way, like taking the red pill and disconnecting from the Matrix.

People will never be able to handle the responsibility of Liberty if weaning them from it makes them dependent on the STATE or any incremental dismantling of state apparatus.

It's cold turkey or nothing.

Freedom without responsibility is nothing but a complex form of slavery and responsibility is a harsh mistress.

North American Indians are the exception.
They entered the welfare state as an entire society/culture, we owe it to them to wean them off of the state by steep, but fair, incremental steps because WE were the ones who made them dependent.

"Above all, though, children are linked to adults by the simple fact that they are in process of turning into them. For this they may be forgiven much. Children are bound to be inferior to adults, or there is no incentive to grow up."
~Philip Larkin
1922-1986, British Poet

Posted by: Speller | 2008-04-04 11:20:08 PM

Adam is right about incremental change. Change must come in small steps that are comfortable enough to be acceptable. Weaning the public off of government pensions in Chile is an example. Kicking government subsidies for business and agriculture has been proven to work in New Zealand and that was instituted by a labour government

Posted by: DML | 2008-04-05 12:31:51 AM

Ahhh, but Speller - how could a government ever attempt the all-or-nothing approach by democratic means? Or even, simply, by means consistent with individual liberty - meaning that, at the very least, government must derive its authority from the people.

The only way I see the all-or-nothing approach working is through something like the reserve October Revolution that, in essence, Rand preached.

Dictatorship of the libertariat, or what have you.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-04-05 1:04:27 AM

Chile is not Canada nor is it New Zealand.

Chile, compared to Canada, is a monolithic society.

If change is in small increments it is easily reversed and no "conservative" government has spent any significant length of time in power in Canada or ever had three back-to-back majorities.

In the 141 years of Canada's existence "conservative" governments have ruled for about 35 years in total.

Yoshi is mainly wrong in that he terms drug use as "abuse".
If one looks at the total estimated illegal drug use in Canada, one can only conclude that most recreational drug users are using as responsibly, if not more responsibly, as alcohol users.

By terming recreational drug use "abuse", Yoshi sets up a strawman from which he can falsely extrapolate that IF drugs were legalized THEN "we’d be forced.....to expand social spending to cope with its consequences."

We are now not only forced to deal with the consequences of genuine abuse, which as I said before is only a small fraction of the actual use going on, but we also are dumping huge resources into policing, trials, and prisons.

A lot of the current drug abuse itself, such as it is, is related to prohibition which prevents responsibile drug usage from being harmonized with Canadian culture the way responsibile alcohol use is.

Posted by: Speller | 2008-04-05 1:15:00 AM

Your, Adam Yoshida | 5-Apr-08 1:04:27 AM post is entirely correct as i see it.

But of course incremental change of the current welfare system, as a prerequisite to drug legalisation, dooms the repeal of prohibition to never occur.

It'll never happen.

Posted by: Speller | 2008-04-05 1:22:12 AM

No doubt the most difficult and vexing theoretical problems related to libertarianism have to do with how to make the transition. To suppose there is no good path is to deny the power of human ingenuity when not coerced and stiffled by a central authority.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2008-04-05 11:59:20 AM

The ironic truth is that the only way libertarianism could ever be implemented is through a dictatorship.

Now, as to some other questions:

Q: Why would we give legal immunity for drug dealers?

A: Any system of drug legalization would require some sort of immunization for dealers, traffickers, and producers since, of course, the things they market are harmful to human health - and therefore they would be sued for much the same reasons as tobacco companies have been sued and as the food industry is now being sued.

Anyone marketing, for example, cocaine would be likely put out of business rapidly through lawsuits.

And that ignores the obvious truth that, once drugs were legal, the most popular drugs would quickly become things unknown to us at the present - that is to say pharmacutically-designed recreational drugs.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-04-05 4:30:26 PM

Don't treat "Atlas Shrugged" as a blueprint for action. It is a work of fiction.

Posted by: Jack | 2008-04-06 7:53:26 AM

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