Monday, November 14, 2011

In search of the libertarian / liberal divide, part II

In my previous post [click here to read it], I listed a series of policies advanced by a self-identified "marginal libertarian" and promised to examine why I support, support with reservations, or oppose these policies. In this post, I'll start with those policies that I almost unequivocally support: ending the war on drugs and legalizing same sex marriage.

First, ending the war on drugs:

I'll say that whatever other reason I might have for opposing the war on drugs, I'm convinced by the libertarian argument for ending the "war." Here is that argument as I understand it: the "war" is an excuse, and provides a mechanism, for the state to exercise a broad authority over its citizens in a particularly arbitrary way. The "war" subjects people to constant governmental oversight, crowds our prisons, and ruins the job prospects for millions of people who are caught for "possession." It also acts as a sort of "prosecutors' insurance": if the prosecutor "knows" someone is guilty of something serious, but can only prove possession, then the he or she can leverage that possession into a plea deal that increases his or her conviction rate. The "war" also creates a broad constituency for its own perpetuation: the prison guards union in California, owners of privatized prisons, prosecutors, the vast networks of funding streams for federal, state, and local efforts to eradicate the drug trade, to name a few.

My only quibble with "end the war on drugs" is not a particularly anti-libertarian one, it's one of definition. At its base, the "war on drugs" is a metaphor for a wider array of policies that function as a large power shift of the state over everyday citizens. In other words, there is not one single "war" policy that needs be overturned, but several other steps that probably include decriminalization, ending funding streams, ending the Drug Enforcement Agency. (Note, ending the "war" does not, to my mind, necessarily imply legalization, although it probably implies a radical decriminalization. Also, some ways that might be proposed to end the war, a "focus on treatment," for example, might have some very bad collateral consequences: in my more dystopian moments, I can imagine a judge saying to someone "well, you haven't committed a crime--and therefore this is not an adversarial process and you don't have the right to a lawyer--but you appear to be an addict, and I therefore "invite" you to spend 5 years in a treatment facility, and because this is for your own good, you must accept the invitation or be guilty of violating law wxyz-1234.")

The policy goal of allowing same sex marriage is also one I support largely on libertarian as well as personal grounds. The personal: I know several gay couples, and I would like them to have the option to marry if that's what they want to do. The libertarian: I find it unfair to deny some couples the right to marry simply because they are of the same sex. With the exception of, perhaps, a (probably very slight) increase in government spending or decrease in tax revenues because more people would, with gay marriage, be in different tax and social security benefits categories, and with the exception of knocking straight marriage from its position as "the only marriage contract allowed," I don't see how legalizing gay marriage affects others' rights at all. Even if the affect on taxes and government spending be enormous, I hope I would still support ssm because it's the right thing to do.

In my next, probably most boring post of the series of posts, I'll discuss the policies I support, but with reservations.

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