Friday, April 4, 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.

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