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Law and order
17 December 2012

Can you handle your drugs? Yes? Well, good for you. Now, obey the law like everyone else.

Writing for City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple draws a brilliant parallel between the law on drugs and speed limits (yes, that’s right, between the prohibition on one kind of speed and the restriction on the other):

  • "On the matter of drugs, libertarians argue that it is no business of the state to tell citizens what to take or not to take, and that doing so is therefore an oppressive curtailment of freedom. The drug laws, they insist, don’t work in practice, because so many people break them—with impunity or not, as the case may be.
  • "Let us draw an analogy with speed limits. They undoubtedly curtail our freedom; they are undoubtedly unevenly enforced; and it is likewise undoubtedly true that they don’t work, in the sense that there can hardly be a single driver in the world who has not knowingly broken them. Indeed, it is probable that most drivers break speed limits every time they drive a car. But does that mean that speed limits do not work? No." 

It should be obvious that speed limits, though frequently broken, still have the effect of keeping speeds down. Similarly, drug laws – if enforced with any degree of diligence – restrict the supply and therefore the use of drugs. The fact that illegal drug use is declining in this country, while the problem of so-called ‘legal highs’ is getting worse, would appear to be bear this out.

But there's another libertarian argument that deserves an answer: many people manage to enjoy drugs without doing themselves serious harm, so why should they be punished just because others are not so judicious in their own use?

Dalrymple points out that much the same argument could, and presumably is, made in respect of speed limits – i.e. applying the same limit to everyone curtails the freedom of those who are capable of driving safely at a higher speed. Given that this is the case, shouldn’t "responsible citizens… be able to determine for themselves at what speed to drive":

  • "Alas, this is strange philosophical anthropology. People are not—I am not—like that. I can see that other people should not drive above a certain speed, but I cannot see that I should not do so. They, of course, have a mirror-image view: they think that they are safe and that I am dangerous. But though we all consider ourselves safe, the fact is that speeding makes us more likely to have an accident or to kill someone.
  • "Living in a civilized society means accepting laws that one did not make oneself, and that in any given situation may seem unnecessary; one has no right to complain if punished for breaking them. I accept the law as necessary even as I break it. One is not oneself the arbiter of everything." 

One might add that even if you are capable of handling your speed (of either variety), there are others who will not be. Therefore, in the absence of a means of tailoring different limits to different individuals, the same limits must be observed by all. 

There is a further parallel that Dalrymple does not mention.

Someone who can safely drive at high speed may not be a direct danger to others, but they would encourage other, less capable drivers to match their speed. The same applies to drug use – after all, who is more likely to encourage a vulnerable person to try drugs: someone who makes a mess of their lives as a result or someone who coolly evades the consequences of their wild ways?

Libertarians so often see the law as something that it done to the individual by the state. But a more conservative view is that the law is something that, through democracy, we make together – and that, through society, we uphold together.


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