"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Dear Reader, if you have an aversion to abstraction and academic exposition, I'm warning you: this won't be a good use of your next 3 minutes. Caveat Emptor. Really? Still here? OK then — you were warned.
Opponents of the war on drugs received some reinforcements today from Human Rights Watch, an organization which seeks to "investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable" across international borders. HRW called upon nations in the Americas to shift illicit drug policies from punishment to deterrence and therapy. The stance taken by HRW is strong: it calls for criminalization only in cases "when someone under the influence of drugs does something that could harm others." While the HRW's position is controversial, it is actually very well situated in the modern Western political tradition, and I think it is both admirable and philosophically defensible.
Specifically, the idea that free persons should be allowed to mostly do whatever they like, so long as one does not harm another, stems from Jon Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Liberals of all stripes have wielded Mill's "harm principle" to bludgeon oppressive tyrants and obnoxious nanny-staters alike ever since On Liberty was first published in 1859. Libertarians, in particular, with their emphasis on individual rights, are generally steadfast opponents of punishing so-called "victimless crimes," in which a person is prohibited from performing an action, even though the only person potentially harmed is the person herself. We don't generally explode in moral outrage at the soon-to-be-well-baked gentleman at the beach who forgets his sunscreen, or the person in front of us in the grocery aisle who reaches lustily for the Snickers, despite the health damages done in both cases. What then, is the morally relevant difference between a sugar high and the real deal? If adult men and women want to stock up on a bit too much Funfetti, well then, let them eat cake. Or, you know, certain kinds of brownies.
Oddly enough, Mill's "harm principle" was introduced to defend a utilitarian basis for personal freedom, not a rights based version. Mill and many of his contemporaries and philosophical progeny were consequentialists, affirming that any action or law was just only insofar as it promoted the best outcome for the greatest number. There are no such things, strictly speaking, as absolute human rights on this account. Whenever you hear phrases like, "on balance," "the general interest," or "the public good," within the scope of a political debate, your consequentialist spidey-sense should start tingling.
In fact, it's usually consequentalist arguments that are marshaled against legalizing drugs. Drug warriors like drugfree.org trumpet the "more than 193 billion dollars" that the U.S. economy loses every year to illicit drug use (the organization failed to mention that alcohol abuse costs even more and remains legal). Likewise, David Frum, Mr. Compassionate Conservative himself, gleefully notes that "Habitual marijuana users experience more difficulty with learning and schooling. They do worse at work, miss more workdays, and suffer more accidents. They have fewer friends and occupy lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder." The problem, of course, with this approach is that just as many awful things happen because drugs are illegal. South and Central American drug cartels that rival the power of states, lost tax revenue, and, oh yea, rampant racism are usually conveniently ignored by the consequentialist drug warriors.
But there are also reasons to resist sinking to consequentialist bean-counting at all in the drug debate. In our data-worshipping, tech-obsessed culture, it's all too easy, as David Brooks so beautifully underscored in his new New York Times column, to merely lean on the crutch of consequences. After all, why worry about individual rights or privacy or freedom of conscience when you can bemoan the billions lost because Johnny was too stoned to study hard? It is true that human rights groups can get a little trigger happy when it comes to declaring everything under the sun a human right, but to reduce our policy choices on recreational drugs to simple, quantitative pro/con lists is to plainly reject the robust tradition of individualism and autonomy in Western — and particularly American — culture. I stand with Human Rights Watch. Let them eat cake.