The Libertarian Fallacy

It is a popular notion among intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to believe that  laws against private behavior such as pornography and recreational drugs (sometimes thought to include alcohol and tobacco) are not only intrusive (which they are) but also unnecessary, of no more social value than to afford the Blue Meanies an opportunity to exercise power over other people. This notion is quite short-sighted.

Let me first simplify the discussion a bit by recognizing that pornography is really just another method for injecting an addictive drug into the bloodstream of its user, in this case testosterone. Similarly alcohol and tobacco, while not entirely unlawful, are also addictive drugs with behavioral implications. So the real quastion boils down to this: Does the government have the right and obligation to limit public access to addictive drugs?

The libertarian, guided by a pervasive distaste for all imposed rules and regulations on his own behavior, answers the question in the negative. He would be wrong. This is easily seen in that every libertarian admits to rules and regulations on other people, when such rules prevent them from imposing restrictions on his own lifestyle. Rules and regulations (also known as laws) are valuable and necessary, precisely when they prevent people from interfering with the freedom of other people. In other words, there is no such thing as absolute freedom.

So now the question becomes, Which rules and regulations enhance freedom more than they restrict freedom? This is the true nature of the Libertarian Fallacy. Let's consider, for starters, a few easy examples, before we delve into the hard cases.

More than the public at large, adolescent males seem to enjoy the sight of blood spurting and human body parts being detached from their owners. Assuming initially the harmless nature of this simple pleasure, we might be tempted to allow them their innocent fun. Except for this one small problem: Who is going to volunteer to supply the spurting blood and detached body parts? Especially considering that part of the fun seems to be in imposing this gore and evisceration on unwilling subjects, the victims' freedom is severely restricted by allowing this pleasure at all. The government rightly forbids it. Fearful of becoming such a victim, the libertarian agrees.

Tobacco is a tranquilizer, apparently improving the immediate life of the user. It is also a destructive drug, the intake of which product painfully shortens the life of the recipient. Recent research has conclusively shown that its destructive effects extend also to the people occupying the same limited airspace as the smoker, and consequently some of the more enlightened communities in this country have enacted laws protecting non-smokers from health hazards caused by the tobacco users. Philosophically, libertarians may oppose such laws, but the non-smokers among them (now a majority) breathe a (clean-air) sigh of relief.

Alcohol is similarly a sedative, reducing a person's anxieties from the cares of life. How could anyone oppose such a benefit? Unless of course the user is operating dangerous equipment (such as an airplane or automobile) in a public place, where a little anxiety and care is called for to prevent said dangerous equipment from killing other people. Every state in the union has (slightly different, but similar) laws prohibiting intoxication on the highways, and the Federal Aviation Agency has very stringent regulations for pilots. These laws help make the highways and air travel safer for everybody. The impact of public drunkenness on vehicular safety is unquestionned, and I have never heard a libertarian complain about such laws.

Three-quarters of a century ago the harmful effects of alcohol on the public welfare was so widely recognized that Congress and the States, using democratic processes, passed a law making alcohol generally unavailable. However, a fairly large minority of people were unwilling to give up their sedation, and were willing to engage in other unlawful behavior in pursuit of it, so much so that it became obvious that they were a menace to society worse than the drunkenness the law sought to prevent. So Prohibition was repealed. And every year thousands of people die from drunk-driver automobile accidents. Because Prohibition failed its social objective, we try instead to punish severely drivers who are only a little intoxicated, on the supposition that these people are more likely to become the drunk drivers of tomorrow.

Please notice that the only difference between modern "zero-tolerance" laws and the Prohibition of the previous century is where we draw the line. People still die from drunk drivers, and the laws don't do a lot to keep people from such irresponsible behavior. In fact, it is the nature of sedatives like alcohol that they impair critical thinking, so that the intoxicant is not able to judge rightly whether he is a safe driver or not. And other people have their freedoms (and lives, which is the ultimate freedom) restricted because of it.

Cannabis and cocaine and opiates have tranquilizing and sedative effects which permit the user to cope with the anxieties of life even more effectively than alcohol and tobacco. Users are much less able to perceive their own reduced ability to control dangerous equipment, but often they are too drugged out to try. However the effect is so powerful that the users often become a positive menace to society as they seek another dose, somewhat like the alcohol users during Prohibition, only worse. The libertarians argue that, like Prohibition, the interdiction is worse than the permission. Unlike alcohol, which was freely and lawfully available in most of the country prior to Prohibition, widespread usage of the other drugs grew mostly after they became unlawful. We can look to Amsterdam to see what happens when the laws are completely removed, and it's not pretty. Addicts are incapable of holding down a job whereby to earn the funds to buy their next fix, so they are forced to resort to illegal activities. Cocaine and cannabis users are generally still able to hold a job, but their performance on the job is reduced. In terms of the libertarian credo, this restricts the freedom of the employer to get the work he is paying for. It depresses the economy and restricts everybody's freedom to obtain quality goods and services in a nice neighborhood.

Where do you draw the line? Ask an addict, he likes it better where he can get his next fix. Sober him up and make him a productive member of society, then ask him again: he rejects the former way of life and joins the majority of the population in wanting that public blight erased.

Pornography is an interesting different situation, bacause the addictive drug is manufactured inside our own bodies. Like cocaine and cannabis, most people can hold down a job while addicted, but their performance is reduced. Inducing drug production, however, requires ever increasing outside stimulation, which is where the porn industry comes in. Like drug dealers, they make their money on other people's degradation. Unlike ingested drugs, sexual addiction often escalates to rape and eventually to the point where it starts to resemble the gore and detached body parts we began this analysis with. At that point, the laws forbidding such activity are, like the laws of Prohibition, ineffective. Most people don't get that far, but there are enough Ted Bundy types around to make it a matter of public safety to prevent all access to all people unless they can be proved "safe." And we don't know how to do that -- certainly not now, and probably not ever.

Pornography and drugs have another social impact commonly ignored by the libertarians: The vendors of this filth want to increase their trade, which they can readily do by creating more addicts. My freedom to not be addicted is infringed when they force their "free samples" on me against my wishes. Pushers give their samples to children too young to understand the consequences. Pornography vendors push their samples through the internet onto unwilling victims. Let the libertarians stop the pushers, and maybe the rest of us will be less opposed to their desire to allow needle parks. Provide effective prevention from internet porn for children and innocent bystanders, and maybe ... No, I cannot say that: pornography harms innocent women and children, and I don't think there really is any truly harmless private usage. Drunks beat their wives, and porn addicts do worse things to them.

The libertarians just don't see the whole picture.

Tom Pittman

First draft: 2004 September 27