Lately I’ve come across an interesting pattern of remarks by conservatives relating some past encounter they’ve had with Libertarian Party activists. The complaint runs along the lines of “all they seem to care about is pot,” or “all they seem to care about is legalizing drugs.”
Which strikes me as a bit odd because I’ve never been to a public gathering of libertarians where marijuana or drugs has been the principal focus of interest, to the exclusion of all else. Yes, libertarians are opposed to drug prohibition. Some libertarians also happen to be recreational users but most whom I’ve met are not (unless you count caffeine and alcohol).
But the libertarian argument against drug prohibition is not, “I like to use drugs and don’t want to go to jail for it.” That’s hardly different from saying “I like to rob banks and don’t want to go to jail for it,” or “I like to molest children and don’t want to go to jail for it.” It’s a ridiculous argument.
There are four principal libertarian arguments against drug prohibition: 1) Moral argument 1: It violates an individual’s right to control his body, provided he is not harming someone else. 2) Moral argument 2: Prohibiting possession or sale of a substance is a violation of private property rights. 3) Practical argument 1: Prohibition raises the prices of the prohibited substances which creates a windfall for violent criminals willing to risk jail, or willing to kill to avoid jail, and leads users to commit burglaries and robberies to finance their habits. 4) Practical argument 2: Prohibition of peaceful activities leads to corruption of law enforcement and a breakdown of legal protections against violations of privacy (4th Amendment) due process (via civil asset forfeiture and no-knock warrants) and gun rights (black-market-related violence leads to public demand for more gun control).
Conservatives will dismiss these arguments in favor of one they think trumps everything: government has an obligation or duty to uphold public health and morals, therefore it has a duty to prohibit the use of intoxicating or mind-altering substances because these things are unhealthy and immoral. (Immoral because they induce irresponsible behavior.) So as to prevent a general social collapse.
My point here is not to debate the topic of whether prohibition is good policy, but to examine this frequent reaction conservatives seem to have when dealing with libertarians. So far, I haven’t had the direct experience of sitting in on one of these meetings which are later characterized as “just about drugs,” but I have a theory about this I wanted to share.
What I think goes on is, when conservatives meet with libertarians, they tend to spend very little time discussing the things they agree on — free market is good, gun prohibition is bad — and focus on things they disagree on. And the biggest areas of disagreement tend to be drug prohibition, and foreign policy.
However, most libertarians, especially the sort of neophytes who tend to populate the Libertarian Party, are not strong on foreign policy. What I mean by that is, they tend not to be particularly well-informed, and either can’t hold their own in a protracted discussion on the matter, or in some cases tend to agree with conservatives that the United States should dominate the world and spread “freedom” everywhere.
So that leaves drug (and sometimes other vice) prohibition, where the background information is relatively simple to learn and the arguments easy to master. And so the conservatives and libertarians go round and round on the topic, each side usually arguing past the other, usually because they are each proceeding from different premises.
And the conservatives come away remembering the encounter as being mostly an argument about drugs. And both camps are frustrated because conservatives can’t understand why libertarians think prohibition is so awful, and libertarians can’t understand why conservatives don’t apply the same principles to personal vices as they apply to running a business.
Is there a way to work around this gap in cognition? I wish I knew. If libertarians strongly desire to work with conservatives on some matter of mutual interest, it may behoove them to focus on areas of agreement, and if the matter of drugs come up, state their position simply and clearly but avoid getting drawn into lengthy debates which are unlikely to be resolved. Agree to disagree and move on.
And remember that even if an ad-hoc alliance with either conservatives or progressives offers some tactical advantages, libertarians are not likely to argue them out of being conservatives or progressives. Like some smart fellow I know says, “You can’t argue someone out of a position he was never argued into.”