Since the Uruguayan government began its initiative towards marijuana legalization, the debate in Mexico and other parts of the world has gained ground with policy specialists, media outlets, and politicians. The latter wish to stay cool, especially “liberals” (left-wing progressives, as we know them here in Mexico), and say that forums should take place to explore the opportunity to “legalize.”
To these johnny-come-lately sympathizers in Mexico, though, the intrinsic value of the freedom to use the drug, without facing state retribution, doesn’t really matter. Unlike in the United States, they also do not dare to fight the prohibition by nullifying legislation imposed by the Federation for a de facto legalization.
The “debate,” as they call it, is something that will portray government hard at work on this key issue, but apart from the publicity stunt, it will be the same catwalk of clichés: it is a health and education issue; it’s a problem of social fabric or inequality; it is a violence problem; it is a spending problem; and on it goes. All argue for costs and benefits within a certain paradigm or narrow continuum that overrides any other considerations, such as personal choice.
Many liberals (as with pseudo-classical liberals on the right) applaud the debate and the possibility of legalization. However, they do so without questioning the inconsistency of those who criticize one side of the state while still using or promoting it for other paternalistic favorites: better schools, better educational programs, better teachers, better hospitals, better police, better social programs, better prisons, better humans, better societies. . . At best the voice of this Mexican liberalism suggests that care must be taken in the conduct of public policy with regard to perverse incentives and corruption.
My desire is not merely to discuss how interventionism, even when conducted with the best of intentions, is inherently paternalistic and dangerous to individual freedom. Rather, I wish to share the elements of the argument that are unlikely to find their place in the regulated market of ideas that our chosen experts and pundits offer: the moral argument for individual freedom and equality. The bottom line, away from the discussions or “debate” is not about balancing costs and benefits — since the damage caused by overriding freedom and equality is greater than any of the purported benefits.
Moral Freedom and Private Property: What Is a Crime?
It may seem obvious, but it is worth remembering that as individuals we have a fundamental right or moral claim over ourselves — self-ownership. The right of over our mind and body is the basis for successful navigation through existence as humans. By successful navigation, that is not in the sense of infallibility but in the sense of being able to learn from failure and correct our actions if we are to achieve certain goals, and even decide to change our goals.
This individual freedom to act recognizes moral autonomy: if each individual owns his mind and body, to impose ideas or physical restrictions in a coercive manner is morally unacceptable.
Each individual is an end in himself and cannot be just a means to other individual ends. This does not mean we do not need others as means. Peaceful exchange and division of labor serve as the foundation for life in society where the individual can design and pursue his ideal conception of being. But it does mean that we must respect the person and property of others.
A crime is a violation of this recognition; its punishment seeks to secure, “to each and every man alike, the fullest liberty he possibly can have—consistently with the equal rights of others—to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property.”
Those are the words of Lysander Spooner, who argued that men act to pursue happiness in any way they can conceive within a given time. In that line of argument the American anarchist called virtue that which brings us closer to our goal and vice that which takes us away. He also stated that things or actions were not vicious or virtuous in themselves. Rather, it is a matter of degree or frequency; this is what makes an activity a vice (or virtue).
Spooner also recognized that “each human being differs in his physical, mental, and emotional constitution, and also in the circumstances by which he is surrounded, from every other human.” Therefore things that are virtuous and lead to happiness of a person can be vicious and carry suffering for another person.” This points out the inescapable subjectivity problem when it comes to what vices and virtues are. But It also appears, under these definitions, that a vice is not properly a crime.
Going beyond the nature of vices, if anything is certain it is that no one but the individual can assess whether something is virtuous or vicious in relation to his preferences, plans, and objectives. No one else can make that calculation, and no one is more interested in making it than the individual.
Regardless of the advice or opinion of others, the right over our body and life experience entitles us to decide what we accept or reject in our body and life. Criminalizing any vice signifies depriving “every man of his natural right and liberty to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property.”
If criminalization causes that much harm, one needn’t be surprised that what is destroying Mexican society is not the recreational use of a substance but the war against a crime that is not actually a crime.
A Demand for Equality
One observation Spooner made in relation to government’s ability to punish vices, assuming for the sake of the argument that you have the moral authority to do so, refers to the high material and social costs of pursuing and detaining every person that acts in any way considered vicious and therefore criminal. Judges could not be considered, for example — because if they were, no one would be left outside the gates. Additionally, no one could reasonably support the idea of a government that criminalizes all vices. Therefore, the prohibitionist must target only a few, those he finds more disastrous, and focuses on criminalizing them.
Even in very interventionist and paternalistic countries such as Mexico, the government is not able to launch a struggle against everything it considers harmful. Time and political capital (that is the ability to impose restrictions without having everybody riot in the street at the same time) are scarce.
This is good for those whose preferences are still off the radar and reach of the state. But it is insulting to those who see some of their preferences labeled as unacceptable and criminal. The moral sentiment involved is that of unfair treatment: some have more freedom than others. This is further evidence that the struggle for individual freedom is a struggle for equality.
A Demand for Freedom
Perhaps Spooner was a bit naive in assuming that the government would never set up a battle against all vices. From where I see it, the modern state continues to expand into the sphere of individual freedom without much resistance. The idea that everything is everyone’s problem, not because we care, but because we all contribute to and participate in (coercively) a government medical system and that government is supposed to be there in order to “ensure the right to health protection” is widely accepted. The prohibitionist and the liberal now converge in a discourse in which the issue is not “vices” but “public health problems,” opening the door to possible legalization.
A final conflict arises when even if we all agree that criminalization is not an ideal approach, not everybody will be convinced that legalization is necessarily better. This occurs not only because of the lack of good arguments or proposals, but because it feeds the common idea that everything must be regulated by the government.
“Nobody forbids you to smoke, drink, take drugs, salt, fat, or sugary drinks . . . you just have to pay more” is a phrase often used in discussions about “public health,” a most effective euphemism for prohibition.
Those of us concerned with freedom must keep clear our argument in this and other discussions. Smoking marijuana or any other vice that we might engage in is an exercise of individual freedom we are entitled to. As far as we do not hurt anyone else, we should have the freedom to do so without interference of any kind by anyone, as well as full responsibility for the impact that may have on our individual search for happiness.
Legalization and criminalization open the door to government growth in different areas, so I say no to legalization or criminalization of marijuana. Rather, I say yes to freedom and individual responsibility, yes to autonomy, and yes to the emancipation of our bodies.