Libertarians, Drugs, and Voting

Libertarians, in their twin obsessions with freedom understood as carte blanche to do anything one wants, and a desperate search for more votes, have increasingly defined themselves as the party of recreational drug use. There is nary an issue that a libertarian cannot eventually bring around to a discussion of basic individual liberties, and nary a discussion of basic individual liberties that will not, usually in short order, be reduced to what libertarians regard as the “prime example” of both the loss of individual liberty and the abuse of government’s coercive power, namely the criminalization of recreational drug use.

This is the most obvious of many obvious examples of how libertarianism soils itself as any sort of political philosophy, as it effectively argues that the defense of liberty ought to hang its hat on the inalienable right to render oneself less capable of rational citizenship, less motivated by one’s higher inclinations and aspirations, and less worthy of being taken seriously as a mature adult human being. The leading plank in the current libertarian platform, and hence the clearest indication of what sort of people they are seeking as their voters, is that everyone has the natural right to become a drug addict and demean his soul and his humanity with substance abuse. (Please do not waste your breath insisting that marijuana is not addictive. For one thing, libertarianism’s case for drugs does not, and logically cannot, stop at marijuana; for another, no one who has known a long-term pot smoker — but who is not one himself — can in good conscience deny that this drug is addictive, and as such deeply destructive of the user’s intellectual and moral capacities.)

Since I fully agree that a modern liberal society ought to limit its government to the role of protecting the individual rights of its citizens, but completely disapprove of the idea of leaving the fate of liberty, and the long-term wellbeing of a society, in the hands of people who are so openly motivated by the pettiest forms of immediate physical gratification, combined with the most aggressive disdain for the reason, judgment, and moderation that make responsible citizenship possible, I would like to suggest a compromise. My solution allows the libertarians to enjoy the full exercise of their most beloved natural right of this moment, namely the right to abuse one’s mind and derail one’s intellect with brain-altering substances, while at the same time safeguarding the classical liberal interest in a free republic grounded in sound principles of limited government and protected by the responsible choices of the people through their elected representatives.

My modest proposal: Decriminalize the sale, possession, and use of all “recreational drugs,” but maintain a system of drug testing or self-reporting under oath as a prerequisite for being granted the right to vote in elections. Specifically, anyone who wishes to participate in an upcoming election should have to establish, in a reasonably convincing way, that he has not used any recreational drugs for one year prior to the given election day. (This is just a proposal; I suppose one could negotiate the drug-free period down to, say, six months prior to an election day, or the level of drug use up from absolute zero to, say, a one-off experiment without any subsequent use.)

This solution, I believe, in no way violates the libertarian desire to defend natural rights. After all, the right to vote, unlike the rights to speech, association, property, and so on, is not strictly speaking a natural right, inasmuch as there is obviously no voting or official representation in the state of nature. The conventions of government, established by free natural humans by voluntary or quasi-voluntary agreement, are indeed conventions. Thus, the specific mechanisms of executing the processes of government, though derived from natural rights, are not themselves directly natural in origin or operation. Hence, just as one who freely agrees to join a game of baseball does not thereby retain his right to violate the rules of the game of baseball itself, but rather freely agrees to abide by the (artificial, i.e., unnatural) rules of that game, likewise with the agreement free individuals make, either literally in forging a new community, or figuratively in joining a pre-existing one (by birth or relocation). Voting, as an essential part of the system of rules for the game of government within a free society, is more a privilege of citizenship than a natural right per se, in the sense that while any citizen must, in principle, be allowed to participate, the society does retain the authority to demand that the citizen abide by certain basic rules of participation — such as presenting valid identification, proving citizenship, voting in the proper district — just as joining a baseball game obliges one to participate in the game according to the baseball rulebook.

And since one of the most essential premises and requirements of a free republic is that rational adults are naturally free beings with a natural right to self-governance, from which is derived the whole notion of government by representatives who are elected by free citizens, it follows that participation in the electoral rules of a free republic — and this is a desperately tenuous proposition at the best of times — depends on the voters being minimally rational, morally responsible adults willing and able to vote in the interests of liberty, and in an informed, clearheaded way. Notice that this requirement of a free republic is not a “perfection requirement”; the natural imperfections and errors of mankind are accepted as the nature of the beast, and hence in no way a disqualification from participation in the workings of government. On the other hand, a person who is not merely susceptible to the imperfections or deficiencies inherent in the species (the flaws we all have, by birth as it were), but who is taking active steps to render himself less than fully human in the relevant sense, must be regarded as in effect willing himself into a sub-human condition, which is essentially different from merely being flawed as we all are. A drug abuser is self-evidently not always in his right mind, and arguably never in his right mind, in so far as he has become unnaturally dependent on material substances that in various direct and indirect ways reduce his capacity for the kind of semi-reasonable deliberation and semi-disinterested judgment that are the minimal requirements of responsible voting in a society that intends to remain free. 

Hence, just as I believe that mentally retarded individuals are fully human beings with respect to their right to life, and therefore may not be aborted upon prenatal detection, or mistreated by their guardians or others during their lives, but that they should not be granted electoral voting privileges if they fail to meet the minimal rationality standards of electoral participation in a free republic, so similarly I believe that regular or recent recreational drug users, having deliberately rendered themselves intellectually reduced (artificially retarded, if you will) with regard to precisely the mental characteristics that are assumed and required of the voters in a free republic, should not be granted the privilege of full participation in elections. At the very least, society ought to be able, not as a violation of liberty but as a protection of liberty, to restrict the electoral participation of individuals who actively seek chemically-induced states of irrationality. 

As a very significant incidental benefit, this restriction would also go a long way to disincentivizing those political parties and lobbyists who today seek to gain support and power in government, in so many countries, by catering to, and hence legitimizing and fostering, men’s moral weaknesses and self-destructive tendencies. For example, so many people seem shocked by the sudden and severe turn of Justin Trudeau’s government toward overt authoritarianism, and disturbed by the ineffectiveness or insubstantiality of any serious resistance to it within Canada. And yet there would be nothing surprising about either the authoritarian lurch or the lameness of the opposition to it, to anyone who observed it in light of the Trudeau government’s legalization (and regulation) of marijuana sales and use. A government that actively courts voters on the basis of their moral weaknesses and their irrationalities gets — surprise, surprise — amoral and irrational citizens, who, as every serious defender of individual liberty, from Thomas Aquinas to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson, always understood, will never be able to maintain or defend freedom at a societal level, for the simple reason that they are not free souls.

You may object that my modest proposal would, if employed today in either Canada or the United States for example, probably disqualify more than half of the adult population from voting. You may so object, I say, but that objection would be no objection to me, unless you can show me the benefit of having a greater proportion of one’s electorate functioning at a sub-rational, amorally obsessive level in its thought processes. To which you may respond that my proposal, if it indeed had the effect of radically reducing the list of eligible voters, would seem to lean quite hard away from the presuppositions of a purely democratic understanding of political freedom. That, again, would be no objection at all from my point of view, for it is neither self-evident, nor even very plausible, in my mind, that pure democracy as a political goal could ever be conducive to, or even reconciled with, the goal of maintaining a society founded on principles of individual liberty.

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