Confused Conservatives Stuck Between Rights and Utility

This week Ohio voters had the opportunity to approve a constitutional amendment that would have legalized marijuana. The amendment, however, was a legitimately terrible law that, if approved, would not have merely legalized marijuana but would have also set up a monopoly on its production, approved its sale only through licensed distributors and denied marijuana growers their natural right to carry concealed weapons. That not even libertarians could get behind it was a measure of how awful this amendment was. Thankfully, it was defeated.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives were also opposed, but for different reasons. Sure, they may have had some token misgivings about government-created monopolies, but their main charge against the law was that legalizing marijuana was too dangerous. It would unleash hordes of hopped-up maniacs on the state, or it would reduce functioning members of society to drooling incompetents or it would provide a gateway to harder drugs.

Now, some of these are valid, if not easily rebutted, concerns. The average American recognizes the violence inherent in the drug trade and extrapolates from it that such violence would escalate if drugs were more readily available. What they fail to understand is that, as economist Benjamin Powell has said, “the drug business is violent precisely because it is illegal.” Just as the prohibition of alcohol turned the 1920s into the decade of the bootlegging gangster, so has the prohibition of drugs turned the drug trade into the cartel- and gang-controlled industry that it is. There’s no reason to believe that legalizing drugs wouldn’t have the same violence-reducing effect as ending Prohibition did in the 1930s.

Similarly, those concerned that legalizing drugs would unleash dangerous drug addicts on society have failed to think their position through, because it necessarily supposes that drug laws work and, therefore, that drug users don’t already walk among us. But this is clearly not true, as the thousands of drug arrests each year show. Furthermore, the violence associated with a relatively benign drug like marijuana is almost entirely due to the fact that it is prohibited, the lessons of Reefer Madness notwithstanding.

In fact, if conservatives are concerned about drugs that contribute to crime, they should be in favor of marijuana’s legalization, since it has been shown that prohibition actually creates incentives for drug producers to supply and users to consume harder drugs. This answer also applies to the dubious “gateway drug” argument. The people concerned about consumers using hard drugs should at least understand how prohibition drives people toward, and not away from, more potent narcotics.

These points are all, I think, effective rebuttals to the conservative hysterics, sincere though they may be, that surround the drug issue. But in seeing the conservative arguments against Ohio’s Issue 3, there has been a larger and more frustrating problem: conservatives’ inconsistent devotion to individual rights.

What all of these arguments essentially say is that individuals don’t have rights if the government or a majority of their fellow citizens think something is too dangerous. The prohibitionist position is that government has the authority to identify actions, products or services that are dangerous to body, mind and soul and prevent its citizens from engaging in them. But this utilitarian position – that government should stop people from making bad decisions – cannot exist in a society that truly respects individual rights. If government can intrude in one area, what’s to stop it from intruding in all others?

The problem for conservatives is that they like to use the language of rights when it is to their advantage. On gun control, they decry the government’s attempt to take away their “right” to own firearms. On economic matters, they point out that government taxation infringes on their “right” to the income they earn. This language continues on a plethora of other issues, from religious freedom to free speech, from the “rights” of bakers to those of pizzeria owners.

In taking both the prohibitionist and the individual rights positions, conservatives are trying to find a middle ground that doesn’t exist. The prohibitionist argument is utilitarian to the core, admitting that government can infringe on rights when it’s convenient to society (or, at least, to certain segments of society). This may appear to be an innocuous idea, until another segment of society finds it convenient to infringe on rights that conservatives value. Conservatives are thus tossed into a confused method of argumentation, where rights apply in some areas and not in others, and the criteria for determining which rights are valid are continuously in flux.

On this issue, and on many others, I have sympathy for conservatives because I used to hold their positions. But I have come to the conclusion that we cannot simply pick and choose which rights should be respected, even if respecting an individual’s rights means that they will make decisions we disagree with.

The ultimate question at hand is not social utility, but rather the proper role of government. If we allow that government can infringe on a person’s right to life, liberty and property on one issue, we must admit that it can do so on many others. If we, on the other hand, uphold liberty as the highest political end, then we must admit that individual rights are to always be respected so long as they don’t interfere with those of another person.

Conservatives can’t have it both ways. Will it be a principled belief in rights, or will it be a utilitarian view of government power? I know which option I choose, but for goodness’ sake, conservatives, just pick one.