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Abusers Give Vice a Bad Name
Picture the leading intoxicants: alcohol, opioids, meth. They cause much harm. According to our prevailing civic religion, who are we supposed to resent, stigmatize, and punish in response?
First and foremost, the producer. Anyone who makes money off of human misery.
Second and secondarily, the typical user. Sure, they rarely experience severe personal blowback. But they normalize deviant behavior. And they put money into the pockets of the vendors of sin, allowing them to flourish.
Last and least, the “abuser” or “addict.” Personally, they may disgust us. Yet the bipartisan position is that archetypal abusers are victims who deserve general sympathy and taxpayer assistance.
I say that these priorities are confused at best.
Visualize a world full of moderate users of every alleged vice. You might not approve, but what’s the big deal? The moderate users do their jobs, live in homes, take care of their families, and keep their friends. They’re not perfect, but who is?
The picture doesn’t change if you add thriving legal businesses supplying all these moderate users with their desired products. Sure, you’re afraid of those who produce illegal products. I know I am. But as Prohibition shows, making an industry illegal turns it scary - and relegalizing it turns it back. You might not admire alcohol producers, but you don’t fear them either. Keeping “purveyors of vice” illegal is thus an exercise in futility.
At this point, you might protest: Are you blind?! Do you not see the urban camps full of drunks and addicts living in squalor? Spreading filth through the neighborhoods they inhabit? Do you not notice their aggressive begging? Their obvious theft of shopping carts and bicycles? How can you speak of outright legalization when the wreckage of partial legalization is all around us? For God’s sake, read San Fransicko!
My answer: I am not blind. While I have not visited the Bay Area in years, I went to college in grotesque Berkeley, California during the People’s Park volleyball lunacy. During Covid, I lived in Austin for months. Encampments were rarely out of eyesight. Last month, my whole family bumped into the hellish addicts’ village just outside the train station in Hannover, Germany. Like normal observers, I’m horrified by such situations - and strive to steer clear of them.
The difference between me and normal observers: I don’t consider extreme abusers or “addicts” to be victims. I consider them victimizers. They aren’t a symptom of a greater social problem. They are the greater social problem. Abusers have and continue to make evil choices. Granted, it logically possible to end up on Fentanyl Row through tremendously bad luck. Empirically, however, everything I’ve read on poverty convinces me that the root cause of such residence is almost invariably extraordinarily irresponsible behavior. Even a mild dose of the Success Sequence will keep you off the street: Read Adam Shephard’s Scratch Beginnings for a blueprint.
Abusers don’t just mistreat their families, friends, neighbors, and passersby. Even worse, they give vice a bad name. Abusers inspire the indiscriminate, unjust “wars” on innocent users. They inspire prohibition, which takes production out of the hands of ordinary businesspeople and into the hands of criminals.
For a utilitarian, the obvious solution is to (a) legalize production, (b) legalize use, and (c) harshly punish abuse. You can manufacture and sell opioids. You can buy and use them. But you can’t live on the streets begging, much less create a tent city of bicycle theft in the town square. If you try, you go to jail.
How, though, should you react if, like me, you have deep libertarian scruples? Sure, start with stigma: “You’re victimizers, and I’m not giving you money.” But even a strict libertarian can go much further. At minimum, you can impose the standard punishments for theft. Which is easy, because if you examine encampments, ill-gotten wares are in plain sight. Stealing shopping carts is a crime. Stealing bicycles is a crime. It’s crazy for cops to look the other way when shifty characters violate property rights in plain sight. And unless you oppose the very existence of public property, you can also consistently favor enforcement of laws against trespassing on, vandalizing, and defiling public property. Enforcing all of this doesn’t precisely make abuse illegal, but it comes close.
Why, though, shouldn’t we just double-down on orthodox prohibitionist remedies? Because you wind up punishing a vastly larger number of innocent people, that’s why. Prohibiting drugs really is like banning guns. When you ban guns, you conceivably reduce violence, but you definitely end up punishing an enormous number of innocent hobbyists - as well as the professionals who supply them. When you ban intoxicants, you conceivably reduce abuse, but you definitely end up punishing an enormous number of innocent hobbyists - as well as the professionals who supply them.
It is easy to tar opponents of gun control as “soft on crime.” It is easy to tar opponents of prohibition as “soft on abuse.” But in a strange sense, both gun control and prohibition grow out of softness. A system with the moral courage to harshly, swiftly, and surely punish violence would have little need of gun control. A system with the moral courage to harshly, swiftly, and surely punish abusers for stealing, trespassing, vandalizing, and defiling would have little need of prohibition. In both cases, we haphazardly punish millions of innocents because we refuse to decisively punish thousands of clear-cut criminals.