2020: Libertarian Victory?

In a stunning departure from its long-standing tradition of analytical rigor, the Cato Institute has declared Joe Biden “president elect”:

Screen shot from cato.org, 11/8/2020

While votes are still being counted and we have weeks of re-counting and election-fraud litigation ahead of us, this formerly prominent think tank has now decided to climb down the precarious ladder of political punditry. I can only wonder what the constitutional experts on the Cato payroll say – or dare not say – about this.

Fortunately, not all of their output is undergoing this metamorphosis of discernment. Michael Tanner, a Cato senior fellow and an accomplished public-policy scholar, has published an article detailing other outcomes of the election that, he points out, are of interest to libertarians. His long list of ballot initiatives stretches from tax policy in Colorado and Illinois to drug liberalization in New Jersey and Oregon.

Tanner explains clearly why the initiatives on his list are important to libertarians, making a good case for every item on the list. However, there are two points missing, which we will return to in a moment. First, a summary of Tanner’s list.

His top issue is the War on Drugs, which, he says “took a major hit”. Every single initiative toward drug legalization passed, he explains,

including proposals to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi, recreational marijuana in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, to decriminalize hallucinogenic plants in Washington, DC, as well as a far-reaching measure to decriminalize drugs – including cocaine, heroin, and LSD – in Oregon.

Next up is tax policy, where Tanner notes that voters in both Colorado and Illinois voted against higher taxes. In fact, in Colorado the ballot measure to destroy TABOR – a constitutional measure to limit taxation – was defeated and the initiative to cut the state income tax was approved. There was also a tax policy item on the ballot in California, Tanner explains:

Possibly the biggest question put to California voters, Prop. 15, would have changed property tax rules for commercial properties, resulting in an overall ax increase of $7.5-$12 billion.

According to Tanner, the outcome on this item is still uncertain.

Most of the rest of the items on Tanner’s list cover civil liberties (largely matters under the Fourth Amendment) and criminal justice reform. Some items pertain to economic regulations, including the now-infamous attempt by the state of California to force “gig workers” over in the employment fold.

For the most part, this account of ballot initiatives does indeed have a libertarian profile. Deregulation is essential for economic freedom, and even social deregulations can have positive economic effects. For example, the right of gay couples to marry can be helpful in their entrepreneurship as they get access to the same tax code as married, heterosexual couples. However, the deregulation of narcotics – what Tanner refers to as a “major hit” to the War on Drugs – does not belong under that banner. As I explained recently, the attention that libertarians give to drug legalization is a major reason why their movement never really translates into electoral victories. It puts on full display their indifference to how legal drugs affect the ability of a libertarian society to defend its own liberty.

There is a technical difference between decriminalization and legalization, but that difference does not play out in practice. Wherever the use of these drugs is associated with criminal impunity, drug use will expand, and wherever drug use expands, society gradually deteriorates. Respect for property rights, even public safety, weakens, as does the ability of members of a community to support themselves and their families.

If anyone needs proof of this, a review is recommended of what alcoholism has done to our society over the decades, even centuries. Is liberty advanced by an expansion of this destructive domain of human society?

A common argument for legalization, one that Tanner does not mention, is that lawmakers want a new tax base. This was a major argument in Colorado when legalization of THC was being debated. It has also been an often-heard argument in the fledgling legalization debate in Wyoming, and I cannot help wondering how long it will take before the state of Oregon fully legalizes all drugs and puts an excise tax on their sales.

Ironically, the same libertarians that celebrate the defeat of tax-hiking ballot initiatives also celebrate the de facto creation of a new tax base in more states across the country.

Perhaps in the future, the Cato Institute and other outfits that propose legalization should add a caveat to their efforts: legal drugs, so long as they cannot be taxed. However, I doubt that this would ever happen: libertarian legalizers like drugs more than they hate taxes.

This preference is visible in the priorities that libertarian think tanks make. Not only do they allocate about ten percent of their staff resources to any research and policy work related to government spending, but they also isolate their fight against tax hikes from that very same spending. It is well known that opposition to higher taxes without proposition of spending reform eventually folds to higher taxes and higher spending.

There is, namely, one question that every opponent to tax hikes will eventually trip up on: “So how do you want to pay for [insert any given government spending program here, preferably one of high emotional value]?”

Tanner’s list is conspicuously void of examples of efforts to reduce government spending. This is not his fault, of course – he is only reporting on ballot initiatives from across the country. However, it is very important to understand the significance of the silence on spending. It is more common with state laws that mandate ballot initiatives for tax hikes than it is with state laws that mandate ballot initiatives for spending hikes. In fact, the latter does not exist anywhere; there is not a single state where voters have to approve an increase in appropriations for state and local governments before the increase goes into effect. Government spending is for the most part autopiloted through the legislative process; the squabbling that always takes place tends to be limited to small, isolated items of no real consequence to the bottom line.

In other words, while there are good reasons for libertarians to celebrate the defeat of tax-hiking initiatives in California, Colorado and Illinois, there are even better reasons to ask what the point is of those victories when government spending keeps growing by its own volition. Over time, resistance to higher taxes becomes increasingly difficult as government spending keeps growing. Colorado is a case in point: its TABOR, which only applies to the General Fund, held the line well on state government spending in the 1990s, the Centennial State’s first decade with TABOR. Since then, however, its effect on government spending has weakened.

Proponents maintain that without TABOR, government spending would have been even higher today. That is an unverified statement – there is no study that shows how many more spending initiatives would have passed the state legislature if TABOR had not been in place – but it is not unlikely that they have a point.

The question, of course, is how much higher spending would have been, but with reference to Tanner’s list there is an even more important question to ask. Why isn’t the libertarian movement pushing for the same hurdles to be placed in front of spending hikes as they have created to thwart attempts to raise taxes?

Again, Michael Tanner’s account of libertarian causes that moved forward in the November 3 election, is worth a read. It is inspiring in some ways, but its foremost contribution is in shedding light on what is not on the list. If there is any lesson to be learned here for libertarians, there it is.

If Cato gets its wish and Biden become president, we will wake up one day with a top tax bracket of 62 percent. More of us will also have the displeasure of waking up to the foul smell of legalized marijuana. Therefore, the one question that every libertarian has to ask himself is: would you rather smoke a legal joint and pay a 62 percent marginal income tax, or stay away from the joint and pay 26 percent?

Libertarians Will Flock to Oregon

It has been said that those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Perhaps that is why the left in America is going over the cliff.

How else can you explain the legalization of dangerous drugs in Oregon?

Oregon became Tuesday the first state in the nation to decriminalize hard drugs, passing a Democratic-backed ballot measure lifting criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy and meth. Measure 110 led comfortably Wednesday by 58.6% to 41.4% with 80% of the vote counted, according to unofficial results from the Oregon secretary of state. The measure’s supporters, led by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, cheered the vote as a sign that “the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use” and predicted the effort would spread to other states.

Oregon is run by the left wing of the left wing, and that is apparently not going to change. The only remedial effect of this vote is that states like Colorado, where “only” extremely potent marijuana is legal, will now see an outflow of Oregon-bound drug addicts who want to ramp up their abuse. Hopefully, we who live just a dozen miles north of the Coloradan drug mess can get some relief.

However, it is not just leftists and assorted drug addicts who will now flock to the Beaver State. Libertarians will also want to move there. They have made the legalization of everything from pot to LSD a rallying cry for their troops for decades. Case in point: when the Reason Foundation celebrated its 50th birthday in 2018 they organized a panel to discuss how to best move the legalization issue forward. Their focus was on

how drug policy has changed over the years, the difficulties in actually implementing legalization, and how drugs the government still considers “illicit”—LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, and more—are now being talked about not simply as ways to get high but as means to increase mental health, happiness, and well-being.

Clearly, no one over at Reason has bothered to spend any extended period of time in any rural community that has been devastated by drug use. Why don’t they put their money where their mouth is and move to Pueblo, Colo., where legal marijuana is wreaking havoc on an entire city?

Actually, if Biden actually wins this election, they may not have to. Once sworn in he will step aside and Kamala Harris will become president. That will be a cause for partying over at Reason, where the stalwart libertarians will celebrate at the prospect of a Harris administration. She is, they explain with joy, a legalizer of their kind.

That Kamala Harris is now a legalizer explains why so many over at Reason supported Biden in this election. Apparently, the higher taxes she wants are of no consequence when the Reason libertarians can get a president who is on their side on their top issue: legalize all drugs, for all.

Should a Harris administration not happen, the Reason crew can always relocate to Oregon. They could bring with them the legalizers over at the Cato Institute, or the Institute for Humane Studies whose executive director made his advocacy bones in the legal-pot movement. Maybe they want to bring along the pro-drug people from the Libertarian Institute.

But no: they won’t move. They are comfortable where they are. The libertarians who want legal drugs are not interested in the communities that have been destroyed by the very policies they advocate. Just like socialists never move to Cuba and choose America over Sweden, libertarians dread setting their tender feet in drug-infested communities.

Nor are they interested in the consequences that legalization has for liberty itself. One reason, of course, is the long tradition among libertarians of promoting legalization, including so-called hard drugs. It is easy to just step in to that tradition and continue in the same tracks.

However, intellectual indolence, while clearly associated with drug use, is not an excuse for promoting anything in public policy.

Another reason why libertarians continue making drug legalization the center of their political existence is that they simply do not appreciate the threat to their very own liberty that drug use represents. The sane voices that see this connection are few and far between, but the Witherspoon Institute in New Jersey is one of them. In a high-quality article in their publication The Public Discourse, philosopher Timothy Hsiao explains the link between drug legalization and the destruction of free society:

If the government has a responsibility to protect and promote freedom, then it must also protect and promote the conditions that make it possible. On this point, one essential ingredient of personal freedom is rationality. Choices can only be free if they are made by a person whose cognitive faculties are functioning in the right way. Reason confers on our actions a certain order and intelligibility that make them explicable and coherent. It is what makes our actions ours, such that we are responsible for them. Our ability to act freely is diminished or destroyed if we are unable to deliberate and think coherently, or if we are subject to overwhelming coercive forces. In other words, freedom isn’t just the bare ability to do something; it is the ability to act under the influence of properly functioning cognitive faculties.

Hsiao outlines this argument in great detail, pointing out that individuals who use drugs lose the ability to make rational choices. That ability is critical if an individual is going to function in a free society, where rationality keeps us from confusing right with wrong.

Hsiao sums up by noting succinctly how

recreational drug use impairs and undermines the conditions for freedom, and so the legalization of recreational drugs is incompatible with the vision of a freedom-respecting state.

There are two further points to be made along the same line of argument. First, there is personal responsibility: an individual who is responsible for others in his immediate presence – family members in general and children in particular – has a moral obligation toward those individuals to add value to their lives. In the case of children, the responsibilities are of course formidable.

A person who resorts to drug use loses his ability to be a responsible citizen, to be the last line of protection and provision for those who are weaker than himself. I discussed this concept at length in my book Faith and Freedom: The Moral Case for America, where I connected libertarian philosophy with Christian ethics.

To take one more step down the same line, it is incumbent upon every citizen of a free society to defend and uphold its institutions – and its liberty. If a threat to that liberty arises, every able-bodied member of that free society has an equal duty to come to its defense. It is not the right of one free person to expect others to sacrifice themselves for his liberty; the exception is of such services are explicitly contracted under consent and mutual gain. For example, a libertarian who wishes to lose himself to destructive drug use, could ask his neighbor to come to the nation’s defense in his place.

That, however, does not resolve the legalizer from his duty to exercise responsible citizenship. It merely changes its nature: he is now responsible for providing for his neighbor’s training, weaponry and – in the event of armed conflict – health care and support for his family. To do so, the legalizing libertarian must now work hard to put aside enough money so that he can honor his contractual duties, should that day ever come.

However, the defense of liberty is not confined to just the rare case of war. It is an ongoing duty, one that includes policing and jury duty. Even if a libertarian drug user can buy himself out of police services by paying a fee to a protective organization (thus still having to exercise due work ethic to make money), he cannot buy his way out of jury duty. And who would want to be tried by a jury of 12 people high on THC 20 times more potent than what they smoked in the 1990s?

Or, maybe he wants to be able to do that as well?

Maybe the libertarian drug user wants to buy the services of others for all functions that maintain the free society in which he considers himself entitled to smoking pot, shooting heroin and using meth? And perhaps his society will survive – so long as he is the only one who claims that entitlement.

What if everyone else does it? What if the drug abusing libertarian wakes up one day and finds that there are no police officers anymore out there. What if his private protective organization has been dissolved because all its employees are snorting cocaine instead? What if the court system has crumbled because all its employees and prospective jurors would rather turn on, tune in and drop out?

What if some drug users band together and terrorize the libertarian’s neighborhood? Who is going to defend him against the band of thugs?

As Hsiao implies, the end station of drug legalization is anarchy. It is the exact opposite of the kind of free, prosperous and peaceful society that libertarians in general say they want. It is a society where the governing principle is might, not right. It is a brutal society where the only order to be found is that which is imposed by brute force and absolute tyranny.

The drug lord’s tyranny.

I am perennially baffled at how libertarians fail on issue after issue to make clear, concise and consistent arguments for the furtherance of liberty. America’s libertarian movement is not ailing. It is failing. It needs a total remake, from the ground up.

And that starts here, on the Liberty Bullhorn.