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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lemieux: The mirage of state morality

In this week's column, Pierre Lemieux examines the state's control over "dangerous substances." These include not only hard, illegal drugs, but also things like alcohol and tobacco. The government thinks all these substances are dangerous, and exercises control over all of them that makes them harder for you and I to get.

So what's the deal? What reason does the government have to make our lives more difficult in this way?

According to Lemieux, there is basically one fake reason for the government to control substances and two real reasons.

The fake reason is the one we're told: alcohol, tobacco, and other substances are kept out of our hands "for our own good." The government wants to live good lives, and -- so the argument goes -- that's incompatible with smoking pot. It's incompatible with being able to buy beer, liquor, and cigarettes anywhere we want, with minimal hassle.

I haven't been back for a while, but I hear in Ontario the government now forces vendors to keep cigarettes off the shelf and behind the counter. Like porn. All for our own good. All because some bureaucrat somewhere decided our lives would be very much improved if it became harder for us to get the things we wanted.

But, of course, the government is only making it harder for us to get "dangerous" substances. As Lemieux writes:

Who’s to draw the line between legal and illegal “substances”, except politicians and bureaucrats, including apparatchiks who write reports for the government? Aren’t we observing a gradual move towards tobacco prohibition?

I don't mind the government placing some regulates on substances that are inherently dangerous to others: explosives, perhaps. Drugs that cause those who use them to become uncontrollably violent (read: not marijuana.) But many of the regulations on so-called "dangerous substances" seem unnecessary, expensive, or just silly.

There are two real reasons the government has to control substances. First, as Lemieux notes, some substances receive quite a bit more control than others. Alcohol is controlled less than pot. Why is that? He argues:

Why does the state actually control substances? And why some substances more than others? Obviously, some interest groups are more efficient in having their preferences satisfied. The preferences of the ruling class certainly influence the preferential treatment alcohol receives.

The new bourgeoisie loves its swimming pools, which is why private pools go unregulated even though they present a serious risk to children. The new bourgeoisie loves its wine, and wine is less regulated for the same reason (in fact, wine is the only booze you can get in the typical Ontario grocery store; a certain lobbying group had something to do with that, I'm sure.)

As for the other reason government chooses to exercise control over substances, just look at the resoundingly successful War on Drugs in the U.S. It's been successful, all right. Under the banner of this "war", the government has expanded its power of search and seizure and its ability to confiscate assets of suspected (not convicted) criminals.

The War on Drugs, like almost all wars,  has been very beneficial to the state waging it. It's been less of a success for the war's many victims.

What of the original argument for control of dangerous substances -- that it is necessary for our own good? Lemieux writes:

The conservative argument that some substances should be controlled because they undermine morality is based on a series of illusions: the illusion that we know which substances are morally dangerous, the illusion that the state can be trusted to intervene and restrain its own power, and the illusion that the state should legislate morality.

Here, I have to part ways with Lemieux, just slightly: the state does legislate morality, and it should legislate morality. To take a simple example, when the state enforces a valid contract, it is "legislating" morality. When the state protects the right of a detested minority to speak freely, it is "legislating" morality.

What the state should not be doing is enforcing a single vision of the good life on groups that reasonably reject that ideal in favor of some other. The state should protect our rights, but refrain from trying to make us better people.

You can read Lemieux's column in its entirety here.

Posted by Terrence Watson on November 11, 2008 in Libertarianism | Permalink


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Excellent article and comments.

Terrance, do you mean the state should enforce, or legislate?

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-11 5:10:55 PM

Well I can't help but think its all about that nasty old "greedy" capitalism. Capitalism...that thing we're all supposed to be able to enjoy and expect but is only truly practised by our government. If they could "control" marijuana and tax it...it would be legal tomorrow. Its all about control and taxation, the Government has zero morality where it comes to fleecing the populace.

Posted by: JC | 2008-11-11 6:59:00 PM

The most expensive year to the medical system is a persons last year. It does not matter what the age of that person is. Trying to extend life by living healthy is a fools game. All people die (duh) and the longer they live the more it costs the health care system and the government. Most people do not stay fit and healthy enjoying a peacefull death in their sleep. Logic would imply letting people live whatever lifestyle they choose and let the chips fall where they may. Booze, greasy hamburgers, tobacco,old style lawn darts and a host of other things should all be subsidized. I have a aunt over 90 who is going in to get new batteries in her pacemaker. Trouble is that she does not remember who her children are or what day/year it is. Give her a smoke and a good stiff drink and let her go.She quit both of them 25 years ago for her health. She made a mistake.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-11-11 11:08:53 PM

"If they could "control" marijuana and tax it...it would be legal tomorrow."

I disagree... the police would have to let go of some power (not something they would be happy doing). There is BIG money to made in prohibition (mostly in law enforcement), and too many people like the power it gives them.

The gov't COULD control and tax weed, but politics, power and money stop them.

Posted by: joe agnost | 2008-11-12 11:28:22 AM

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