Libertarians, nannies both wrong about what to outlaw
It's a kind of craziness. Over here, in this corner, we have people trying to legalize all drugs, even methamphetamines that contribute to the loss of teeth before they kill you and were once costing society over $23 billion a year. Over here in the opposite corner we have New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg up to something very different. He wants to ban 16-ounce sugary drinks. They help make people fat.
I think anything-goes libertarians and quick-to-spank nannies are both wrong. Correct policy and common sense reside between the extremes. Like so much in life, the issue is one of degree, not absolutes. But degree matters.
While not all illegal drugs are created equal, some are quickly addictive, sure as anything to destroy health and normal functioning and fatal if you aren't really, really careful, which some people aren't when high.
Sellers know that users sometimes burn houses down. They know users sometimes abuse children. But wait, say the libertarians, alcohol abusers perform terrible deeds, too. By what logic do we allow the sale of booze and not allow other drugs, they demand to be told.
I will tell them, noting first off that alcohol is far more deeply embedded in our culture than any of these other drugs and then pointing out that the presence of one perilous product is no argument for still more, some of which might be far worse. It is true that some politicians are demagogues. Is that an argument for electing more demagogues? Not in my view.
James Q. Wilson, the outstanding social scientist who died this past March, had a thoroughgoing response to another libertarian argument, the one that says legality would spur no additional use. When supply is greater and prices are lower, people would buy more, he said, backing up his contention with facts and figures.
An article by John P. Walters in The Weekly Standard on May 7 made short shrift of many other libertarian arguments.
The drug war hasn't worked, they say. Yes it has, Walters demonstrates; use has come way down because of it.
We are filling prisons with non-violent drug offenders, they say. The argument is overstated, Walters replies; the system focuses on violent and repeat offenders, the percentage of prisoners involved with drug crimes has been declining, and ever more emphasis has been put on treatment outside prison walls.
Mexico's drug cartels would dissolve if we legalized drugs in this country, their favored market, they say. Not true, Walters says; those cartels are involved in a wide range of crimes besides drug selling, and the solution to their demise is effective law enforcement.
So now we come to Mayor Bloomberg, who is fighting everyday decisions by everyday Americans to no end, except, as far as I can see, to make things worse. He is in effect saying to New Yorkers they are children who must be watched over by all-wise government curtailing their need for self-responsibility.
Yes, it's true that sugary drinks will help make you fat if you drink enough of them, but so will maybe a thousand other forms of food, and it is obviously the case, as the mayor concedes, that restricting the size of the drink hardly means you cannot purchase multiple drinks.
What we have here is an exercise in paternalistic pushiness from still another politician who can't control himself. It seems Bloomberg has routinely ignored restrictions on taking off and landing a thunderously noisy, exhaust-spewing helicopter in the city late at night and on weekends.
Between the federal, state and local governments, it is getting to where nothing is trivial or personal enough to be left unregulated, meaning that the idea of liberty is becoming a joke. I myself don't feel like laughing.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.