Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Morality Over Freedom?

Michael Gerson wrote what amounts to a "for shame" kind of attack piece on Ron Paul in the Washington Post yesterday, decrying the Congressman's "second-rate values."  Gerson, as could be expected, seized on Paul's statement from last week's Republican debate that all drugs should be legalized, up to including cocaine and heroin.  Gerson rather ham-handedly goes at the argument by attacking what was actually one of Ron Paul's most poignant comments from the entire debate:
The freedom to use drugs, he argued, is equivalent to the freedom of people to “practice their religion and say their prayers.” Liberty must be defended “across the board.” “It is amazing that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way,” he said, “but not when it comes to our personal habits.”
When you stop to think about it for a minute, this is a pretty obvious statement arguing for removing the authority to control drugs from the realm of the federal government.  What that one sentence does, quite matter-of-factly, is force a religious social conservative to look him or herself in the mirror and ask whether they would like there to be a federal law regarding whether or not they are allowed to choose their own religion.  Framed in this manner, if you are free to make the personal choice to fill your heart and soul with the holy spirit, or whatever deity of your choosing, why then should you not also be free to fill your lungs with smoke or your veins with poison?  Choosing to be a Catholic and live within the hard rules of Catholicism means that you have chosen to forgo many modern forms of birth control.  It is a choice you make, and if you find yourself with a child before you are financially capable of supporting one, you find a way to move on.  You may not be ready, either, emotionally, to raise that child, but you try, because you live with the choice you have made.  Perhaps over the years you damage both yourself and that child emotionally or even physically, due to the stresses a life of unreadiness brought you.  Perhaps you don't.  But it was your chocie to be a Catholic, and it was your choice, therefore, to live that particular life.

This may seem a strange example for comparison, but it holds as follows.  We do not view the choice of Catholicism and the subsequent lack of choice regarding when to have a child as being poisonous.  But if the family is not ready for it emotionally or financially, stresses and strains are applied to the family and the localized community that have the opportunity to eventually become poisonous, not only to that immediate family, but to that localized community as well.

The same is to be said of drug use.  Yes, it is a precarious choice to poison yourself, and perhaps eventually to destroy yourself, and in the process to have the opportunity to have a detrimental effect on the localized community, but should or should it not be your choice?

It is a question worth asking, though Gerson would have us believe that the concept itself is entirely backward, and that the mere suggestion of it by anyone is to deny the fact of addiction.
This argument is strangely framed: If you tolerate Zoroastrianism, you must be able to buy heroin at the quickie mart. But it is an authentic application of libertarianism, which reduces the whole of political philosophy to a single slogan: Do what you will — pray or inject or turn a trick — as long as no one else gets hurt. 
Even by this permissive standard, drug legalization fails. The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods — say, in Washington, D.C. — has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their “personal habits.”
I will forgo going into too much discussion about how Gerson ignores and therefore absolves entirely the economics behind why drug neighborhoods become drug neighborhoods, though this has far more to do with the "why" of things than does the actual drug use, and focus more on the fact that Gerson rests on the ever-popular "only government" argument, and specifically given his essay, "only the federal government," though he hides it within the cloak of the superiority of his own Republicn Morality.
Libertarians often cover their views with a powdered wig of 18th- and 19th-century philosophy. They cite Locke, Smith and Mill as advocates of a peaceable kingdom — a utopia of cooperation and spontaneous order. But the reality of libertarianism was on display in South Carolina. Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict’s voice: “Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws.” Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline. Such are the manners found in Paulsville. 
This is not “The Wealth of Nations” or the “Second Treatise of Government.” It is Social Darwinism. It is the arrogance of the strong. It is contempt for the vulnerable and suffering. 
The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.
Without quite exactly saying it, because it would undermine his Superior Republican Morality to begin with, Gerson argues that only the federal government, led by Superior Republicans, has the ability to manage the issue of drugs with a "necessarily more complex" alternative to actual constitutional freedom, and so we come to the actual point.

The argument here is not one of whether drugs are bad for you, as Gerson would clumsily lead you to believe.  The argument, rather, is one of who should decide whether drugs are bad for you.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution tells us that this is an issue to be decided at the local level, within the local governments and within the states.  Michael Gerson and others of the Superior Republican Morality would have things decided at the federal level, because, of course, just like the Superior Democrat Morality regarding the environment, they just know better than you.

A conservative will join a libertarian in thinking that the federal government largely oversteps its bounds by doing something like limiting the gallons-per-flush on a toilet, or making 100 watt light bulbs illegal.  These are not, after all, life-altering choices of a moral bent for conservatives.  But drugs are.  And because the Superior Republican Morality comes into play, ultimately you just don't know what's best for you.

But the federal government sure does.  And it ain't Freedom.

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