While defending drug
legalization to a friend of mine the other day, I questioned why
governments should decide what adults get to put into their own
bodies. To be clear, beyond coffee in the morning and wine with
dinner, I do not necessarily recommend recreational drug use.
Drugs obviously have their costs and risks, along with their
seductive benefits, so cost-benefit analyses are in order.
people evaluate costs and benefits differently, so analyses of
this kind will vary from person to person. People can be
mistaken in their expectations of future costs and benefits, to
be sure, but each individual is generally in the best position
to judge such things, and to adjust his or her behaviour based
on feedback from reality.
It therefore makes little
sense to have some group of people impose their own cost-benefit
analyses on others, under threat of fine or imprisonment. If I
initiate force against others, by all means, somebody stop me.
But if I, an adult, engage in peaceful activities whose costs
are borne (and benefits enjoyed) by me alone, how can anyone
claim the right to forbid those activities? As an adult, I
should be responsible for my own life.
My friend responded by wondering if any of us is really an adult.
Doesn’t everyone have some psychological problem, some neurosis
or character flaw that keeps him or her from behaving
responsibly? And isn’t human nature, with all its imperfections,
really better suited to paternalism than to pie-in-the-sky,
There are indeed many individuals of legal age who do not act
like responsible adults all (or even most) of the time. They may
abuse illegal drugs—or legal drugs, for that matter. They may
become addicted to gambling and squander their resources at
casinos and video lottery terminals. They may spend money they
don’t have, or pay too little attention to their health, or just
generally fail to live up to their potential. Couldn’t we all
use a little help from time to time?
Of course we could. But
does this mean we’re not really adults? And does it really
For one thing, if we are
all effectively children, why do some of us children get
to tell the others what to do? What makes the children who get
elected any wiser than the rest of us? What endows the pack of
children with the astounding ability to see who among them
should rule? Clearly, paternalism requires that at least some of
us humans be not only responsible enough to run our own lives,
but responsible enough (and omniscient enough) to run everyone
else’s, too. And it requires that somehow, these paragons of
virtue will be the ones who end up holding the reins of power.
But do concepts like “maturity” and “responsibility” spring to
mind when thinking about the politicians you know?
More fundamentally, the idea that we are only responsible for
our actions if we act like responsible adults gets it
backwards. It makes a mockery of the very notion of personal
responsibility. Being an adult who is responsible for his or her
actions does not mean you will always act rationally. It means
you have the ability to act rationally if you choose to.
This is not invalidated
by psychological problems and character flaws. If, for instance,
I discover that I have a weakness for alcohol that threatens my
health, my employability, and my personal relationships, I am
not doomed to lose my liver, my job, or my friends. As an adult,
I can choose to steer clear of bars and not keep booze in the
house. I can choose to seek help from loved ones and therapists.
In this day and age, I can also choose to take Antabuse, a drug
that produces an extreme hangover within minutes if mixed with
alcohol. In short, I can choose, in my more sober moments, to
redefine the parameters of my life in order to help myself act
more like a responsible adult.
Actual children do not
have this degree of control over their own lives. Neither do
people with certain severe mental health issues. But why should
those of us who are fully functioning adults—those of us who are
capable of acting rationally—be subject to laws designed
to restrict the choices of bona fide children and mental
There is a practical
issue involved here as well as the moral issue of not initiating
force against other human beings. If, as I maintain, adults who
are not severely mentally handicapped have the ability to take
responsibility for their own lives, what is the effect of
preventing them from doing so? Making choices for the overgrown
children in our society, and shielding them from the
consequences of their actions, does not encourage them to grow
up. Rather, it infantilizes them. If we are not allowed to fall
down once in a while, we will never learn to pick ourselves up
again. That doesn’t mean we lack the ability to do so. It means
the “muscles” that give us the ability to do so have been
allowed—some would say encouraged—to atrophy.
Paternalists get a lot of
money and power if they convince the rest of us that we cannot
take care of ourselves, or that our neighbours cannot take care
of themselves. The truth of the matter, however, is that most of
us do have the ability to take care of ourselves. Far from being
incompatible with imperfect human nature, liberty encourages us,
through positive and negative feedback, to grow up and make the
most of our lives.