A Reply to Sean Gabb on Drugs

One of the fine things about being an accredited author here is that, when I make a self-contained comment that seems to go beyond the essay I’m commenting on, I’m able to put it up as a separate post. Just that happened when I went to comment on Sean’s post about drugs from yesterday; and here’s what I wrote.

Far be it from me to play devil’s advocate against Sean; but I think the view he expresses in this (long ago) essay is too simplistic.

If an individual takes drugs, and that harms that individual per se, then surely, that’s his or her own look out. However, as Tom Rogers among others has noted, it may cause knock-on effects for other individuals. If a pilot is under the influence of cannabis when he gets in his plane, the passengers (if they get to know) may feel they are being put at unnecessary risk. If a father gets drunk every night, he will at the least put his wife under stress, and may soon default on his duty to bring up and educate his children. Even an accountant or computer programmer, who turns up intoxicated to his work more than very occasionally, is in danger of failing to earn what he is paid.

But all these supposed counter-examples to Sean’s thesis have one thing in common. They require that the individual has a contract they have committed to fulfil. And that that contract, not unreasonably, requires them to be compos mentis whilst doing what they have agreed to do.

But what of those who have no such contract? Unmarried writers or composers? Actors, singers, entrepreneurs, or consultants who aren’t currently doing paid work? Young people starting out to explore the world? Those unemployable through illness, accident or disability that is no fault of their own? Those taking a sabbatical? Lovers on their honeymoon? People whose work is in the “black” or “grey” economy? Why should these people worry about what drugs they take – as long as they don’t force unreasonable risks on to others, for example by driving under the influence of too much crack? And why should anyone else worry?

Smoking is a slightly different issue. I don’t doubt that people have died of lung cancer caused by smoking – in 1968, my best friend’s father was one such. But, as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been proved beyond reasonable doubt that “passive” smoking has caused any significant damage to anyone. So, a political ban on smoking amounts to criminal punishment of people who haven’t been found guilty on any charge.

Ostensibly, the state’s case against drug use seems to be that it harms “society.” Sean makes that point in this essay; but I put it to the company here that Sean has understated his case. I put it to you that the prime issue in the “war on drugs” is that the political state is trying to impose on people a one sided “social contract” they have never signed, and would never sign voluntarily if they knew what it entailed.

And it does this, not for any reasons of benevolence, but to advance its own powers. Oh, and to make rip-off profits for its cronies, too – on both the “legal” and “illegal” sides.


  1. I agree with Neil Lock. The suggestion that the State somehow has the right to control every aspect of our lives, because we might do something which ‘might’ have a ‘knock on effect’ on other individuals, is a doctrine advanced by people who lack any understanding of the concept of ‘liberty’.

    There’s a word for it. ‘Socialism’. It’s deeply anti Libertarian and deeply anti British. Any of these examples, referred to, such as the airline pilot, drunk father, computer operator etc etc are smoke screens which controlling, nanny state orientated individuals, hide behind. When did anyone last hear of a Commercial airline pilot crashing a Commercial Jet due to being under the influence of alcohol?

    We don’t ban the use of knives and forks in restaurants in case we stab one another with them. That does, on occasions actually happen. Neither do we or ban driving, in case we mount the pavement and run people over.

    The only difference I have with Mr Lock however, is in his comments about smoking in confined public spaces. There’s ample evidence that over a period of time passive smoking causes injury. Whether or not it causes death is another matter. But there the is higher risk him doing so than there is of some airline pilot turning up drunk, being allowed by his colleagues to fly the plane, and then crashing it. There is definitely, some arguable risk. More convincingly however, subjecting a person standing nearby to noxious, arguably dangerous fumes. is assault against the person.

    It isn’t clear whether smoking should even be tolerated in open public spaces. But in the interests of proportionality we do so. It is however a decision that we as a community are entitled to arrive at collectively.

    The case for the smoking ban in confined public spaces, is even made without the concept of ‘assault’. If a man stood at public bar masturbating, he would be arrested for gross indecency regardless of whether the owner of the pub objected. The offence would be aggravated if there were children present. Although there would have been be no risk of physical anyone. The man would be imprisoned and put on a sex offenders register.

    There are things we as the community permit in public and some we do not. It’s matter for communities to decide collectively which we do, and which we don’t. Nowadays we have moved smoking from one side of the line to the other, whereas we have moved the act of two men giving each other a modest kiss in the opposite direction. It’s all a matter of taste. But there’s no unacceptable violation of ‘liberty’ one way or the other.

    What consenting adults do in their own private spaces however, is up to us. But one thing I find ironic however, is that that a number of these people (Neil Lock clearly isn’t one of them), who are militantly in favour of permitting smoking in confined public spaces, are also militantly against us being free to take other drugs in private, or even have consenting sex in private with same sex partners.

    These people are not ‘Libertarians’. They are the exact opposite. Fascists.

    • You state:

      [quote]”What consenting adults do in their own private spaces however, is up to us.”[unquote]

      No it isn’t. That’s a typical libertarian sophomoric simplification. Any such argument based on a supposed distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ behaviour does not translate well into reality. If I commit murder, I doubt I should be absolved on the basis that I did the deed in the privacy of my own home. Some more ordinary private vices, such as drug taking, adultery, etc., are socially harmful.

      I would maintain what I said to Dr. Gabb in the other thread, that this is not an ideological/doctrinal issue, rather it is a practical matter to do with the degree of risk that the community will tolerate.

      That said, even a libertarian society would have to have rules, and I think criminalising recreational drug use in some way can be consistent with libertarianism (assuming libertarianism is a belief in maximal liberty). This is where I address your criticism of the concern with consequential harms. Criminalisation could be consistent with libertarianism on two grounds:

      (i). the harm that the behaviour can inflict on blameless others, or the burdens it can impose on innocent others (which I think falls within Mill’s qualifications under the Harm Principle);

      (ii). a belief, which I outlined in the other thread, that sovereignty of an individual over his own body involves not just a right to self-harm but also a responsibility not to self-harm to the extent that this would compromise the autonomy of the individual and thus erode individual sovereignty.

      You give the example of airline pilots and mention that alcoholic pilots don’t crash planes, but they are not likely to do so due to the safety features involved in commercial flying now, which have been put in place partly due to the existence of human flaws and frailties.

      We don’t ban knives in restaurants, but then knives are not provided in restaurants for the purpose of stabbing customers (unless of course the customer can’t pay the bill, in which case all bets are off).

      And on that happy theme, I think you make a very significant admission in your post when you refer to the harm caused by smoking and passive smoking, except that you refer to the ‘community’ rather than the ‘state’. Was that a semantic slip or just a shifty rhetorical ‘moving of the goal posts’?

      In the event, you concede it is a decision for the ‘community’ whether smoking should be legally allowed, when and where. The rest of what you say is just name-calling. If being concerned about the effect of drug legalisation in really-existing society (i.e. the world as it is now, not as it was in Victorian times) makes me a socialist-fascist, priggish, fussy sissy pants, then so be it. But if I am that, then so are you. We are all concerned about something – even hardcore libertarians. That’s where the slippage is: we all have to live in the Real World.

      • Tom,

        I think you have criticized Ronald a tad unfairly for what he said about consenting adults in their own private spaces. I certainly didn’t read into his words any implication that acts like murder, which are wrong anywhere, ought to be allowed in private.

        On “community” versus “state,” I think I’ve already covered most of that in my comment to Ronald above. (Well, actually below…) And yes, you did make the distinction; well done!

        On the criminalization of “socially harmful” practices. I myself (and this is just me, I don’t claim this is at all “libertarian orthodoxy!”) make a distinction between the civil and criminal aspects of wrongful actions. The civil aspect refers to actual harm done to a victim or victims. The criminal aspect refers to the mental state or motivation behind the action – commonly called mens rea. A criminal aspect may exist to an act, for example, if there is intention to cause harm (even if the intended harm doesn’t actually come to pass). Or to violate someone’s rights, even if the act causes no quantifiable harm. Or if the degree of irresponsibility in the act is so high that it causes a very significant degree of risk to others; again, whether or not damage actually accrues.

        In the case of taking drugs alone or in consenting company, I cannot see any realistic possibility of a criminal aspect, except perhaps the irresponsibility of failing to take into account likely unfitness to perform previously contracted tasks. While I’m definitely not one of those who believes the oft quoted mantra “There can be no crime without a victim,” I cannot see any sane reason to criminalize these particular acts. To try to do so is to use a small problem to try to “justify” large restrictions on freedom. It’s the typical statist technique of seeking to crack a tiny nut with a large, heavy and indiscriminate (and expensive) hammer.

        • I was using murder purely as an analogy to illustrate the point that the public/private distinction can be unhelpful and can lead to poor justifications that you often see from drug users such as: “I’ll do what I like in the privacy of my own home”. In reality, you can’t do what you like in the privacy of your own home, at least not without prejudice, as there are laws that the community has politically decided on. I never suggested that Ronald likes murder, and my comments don’t even imply that. That would be very stupid of me, and it’s not what I did. It’s plainly just an analogy.

          As for your other comments, I think I’ve addressed them elsewhere. I am not a drug user myself and I have no wish to be, and as it happens, I have no strong doctrinal view on whether recreational drugs should be legalised or not. I see this as a purely practical issue and I think sensible people should view it that way and consider the relative risks and harms presented, rather than taking “libertarian positions”.

          That said, on the point about doctrine, my main observation here is that, unlike most libertarians, I don’t see the drug issue as an acid test for libertarianism. I think it is possible to be a ‘good’ libertarian and also believe in criminalisation. There are two main bases for this:

          (i). the qualification to Mill’s Harm Principle, that self-harm is not liberty where it harms others;

          (ii). my observation that if something causes self-harm to the extent that it erodes personal autonomy, then this could also be seen as a threat to individual sovereignty and is thus illiberal or unlibertarian.

    • Ronald,

      Where you say “socialism,” I say “statism.” I find this clearer, because “socialism” means different things to different people. It can mean anything from “communal ownership of the means of production,” via “a transition stage between capitalism and communism” to “a social system in which there is no private property.” “Statism,” on the other hand, is a social system that subjects all individuals (a ruling class excepted, of course) to maximum control by the political state. But whatever you call it, you are of course quite right to condemn it, and those that want to force it on to others. It’s deeply anti-liberty, and far worse than merely anti-British – in fact, it’s anti-human.

      But I must disagree with you on smoking. Before the pub smoking ban began in 2007, there was a perfectly workable system in place. Pub landlords could decide what the smoking policy in their pub should be. It could be anywhere from smoking allowed anywhere in the pub, to smoking not allowed anywhere, or the provision of separate areas for smokers and non-smokers. (In practice, the last was the norm). Under that system, if you so wanted you could go to the pub, sit in a non smoking area and (assuming the place was properly designed) enjoy a smoke free atmosphere. What the ban did was take away from proprietors and landlords the right to set their own rules about smoking on their property. Not only very anti-liberty, but anti-property-rights too.

      You also brought up the idea that something called “the community” can decide collectively on what is to be allowed and what not. I think you have placed your finger on a fundamental issue here.

      Now, a voluntary society – say a church, or an organization like the Freemasons – can, indeed, set rules for the conduct of its members. Those members, who find these rules too constraining, can go elsewhere, and seek to live under a less restrictive set. But there’s an obvious problem with this. Once the society becomes too big for decisions to be made by unanimous consensus, some set of rules must be adopted on how to make such decisions. This means that, eventually, some people will feel left out of the decision making process, and if they also perceive themselves as victims of decisions made without or against their say-so, they will want to leave. This is why big societies will always, given time, tend to split and factionalize. And even voluntary societies often get taken over by those with agendas. From my point of view, all this is a strong argument for keeping societies, which claim a right to impose rules on their members, small. Such a small society is what I mean by a “commune.”

      But when people talk of “the community,” I think what they usually mean is a body of individuals all subjected to the same political government. At least, that’s the sense in which I think you meant the word. I, personally, find it very hard to work out what this “community” actually is, even in such simple terms as who, specifically, is or is not a member. And I myself don’t feel any attachment to any such “community”. This is mainly because I judge people not on who they are (like where they were born or where they now live), but on what they do – how they behave towards others, and in particular how they behave towards me.

      In practice, many (particularly those with an anti-liberty bent) use this word “community” as all but a synonym for the state. It’s understandable that those, who haven’t yet grasped that the state and its political government are all but the antithesis of a community of people with common interests, make this error. But I think – though I may be over-optimistic – that I detect signs of a few people, at least, starting to worry that there’s something wrong here.

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