Liberty, License and Legalization

With the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington State, the U.S. has once again extended individual liberty. But yet again it feels as if we have deferred the conversation on individual responsibility.

We enjoy amazing individual liberty in the United States. We get to choose how to make our money, where to live, how to find purpose. But traditionally there have been boundaries around how we have fun, how to make the moment a little less intense, a little more intense, a little more pleasurable. Most vices – enjoyable ways to kill oneself slowly – have been prohibited.

There are certainly religious overtones to the prohibitions, but it was also practical. We live in a compassionate society, with a safety net to keep people that have fallen on hard times from dying. Most people are able to balance their fun with their work. But some people can’t. For whatever reason – biological lottery, wrong upbringing, lack of willpower, whatever – some people can’t stop having the fun they find most compelling, to the point of disrespecting their bodies and their lives.

Too much of a good time often leads to hard times; people that can’t stop having fun eventually crash and burn. With our safety net, society bears much of the cost of keeping them from dying and then helping them put their lives back together. And the costs can be extreme. A drunk driver in an auto accident can incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. A drug addicted father causes the state to have to pay to rear his children. Compassion has a financial cost that we all pay.

So even with the legal ways to have fun we made it as inconvenient as possible. We greatly limited where and when alcohol could be purchased, making it much harder for people that had already started drinking to continue drinking. Our cultural norms reinforced the laws. We had a strong societal bias towards sobriety and seriousness and a general distrust of the impact of vices. All of this worked together to keep people from having too much fun and also worked to limit the costs to society.

Now we have just the opposite. Many cultural norms seem to encourage excess and offer having too much fun as proof of individual freedom. And now, in Colorado and Washington State, smoking marijuana is added to the list of legal vices. It’s not any worse than alcohol, but it is yet another example of a trend – we keep coming up with more and more legal ways to kill ourselves slowly. Sugar and calories are cheaper and cheaper. Pummeling each other with fists, knees and feet is legal. Motorcycle stunts. Even extreme forms of yoga can damage the body. Every year it gets easier for a person to damage themselves in the pursuit of their fun.

My Libertarian friends find this change a good thing (and I generally agree). We are giving individuals greater freedom, more ability to choose their lives and their pleasures. But our social system hasn’t changed; our safety net doesn’t differentiate between bad luck and bad decisions. There is an old saying about personal liberty: “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” The rights of any one individual cannot come at the expense of the rights of another. But the same maxim should hold true with our safety net: “Your right to decide how you have your fun ends at my wallet.” At some point, Liberty becomes License.

Society doesn’t have unlimited resources – as harsh as this sounds, we can only afford so much compassion. Money we spent on compassion comes at the expense of early childhood education, or cancer research. We only have so much money to spend, and we have to decide where we spend it. At some point, we will have to draw a boundary around what society is expected to pay for. At some point it is unfair to the people that do lead sober, serious lives to expect them to pay to support people that spent their lives having too much fun. There are no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to ask the questions. How often should society pay to fix someone that breaks themselves over and over again? How much respect does society owe an individual that disrespects themselves?

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