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Responsibility and Vice

Personal choices the government should leave alone.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 5, 2002

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Responsibility and Vice_James Leroy Wilson-Personal choices the government should leave alone. When people are treated like children, they will act like children. When they are treated like slaves, they will rebel in big and small ways. When expectations of people are low, they will live down to them.

This thought entered my mind after watching two new advertisements from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. You may have seen them at the Super Bowl, in which individual drug users are implicated in aiding and abetting terrorism, since terrorists are funded in part by the illegal drug trade. Propaganda in liberal democracies is effective because even the perpetrators buy into it, and these were, on their own terms, very effective. As Orwellian as could be. But the glaring solution to the drug problem was right there in the ad in which teens protest that drug use is "victimless" and "it's my body."

Such statements are false, the government says, because of where the profits go. Thugs, meaning those who operate violently and outside of the law such as terrorists and crime lords, get the money which they use to attack the people of the United States.

But the lesson to me was obvious in the ads themselves: essentially what these kids are saying is correct, were it not that drugs are illegal. If legal, drugs would be produced and distributed by legitimate businesses, those who seek to operate peacefully and within the law. Those who want to buy drugs would then not be seeing the profits bankroll the plans of our enemies. Blaming drug users now for the World Trade Center is like blaming drinkers, not the government, for the rise of organized crime during the Prohibition Era.

Government can do to things - secure our liberty by deterring, stopping, and punishing violence and fraud, or it can try to protect the people from less tangible evils. That latter assumes competency in the government where none exists and can't exist.

Lessons can be learned from the legality of adult pornography. Let's take for granted that pornography does extensive damage to consumers of it and in their relationships with others. Let's also take for granted that it treats women as sex objects, and even that men who consume pornography have a lesser view of women because of it. Let's suppose, also, that the Supreme Court declares that "free speech" is only speech, and the depiction of visual images are not protected by the First Amendment.

Does this justify outlawing pornography? Not at all, because the only guarantee from censorship is that pornography will continue to exist, but its participants will be less likely to be paid, consenting adults and more likely to be kidnapped sex slaves. The social damage of pornography now may be readily apparent to many people, but it can hardly be established with "evidence."

Outlawing this segment of the sex industry, however, will only drive it underground, and force small-time operators to seek protection with more powerful and even more unsavory types. Further, it would make the participants, mainly women, very vulnerable; instead of legal pornography leading to a vaguely-defined exploitation of women in society, we would have specific women being visibly exploited. And there would still be a market for it, just as there is for illegal prostitution. The more vigorous the prosecution, the greater danger to the women.

And for what? By outlawing behavior because it is immoral, not because there is visible harm to other people, the government absolves us of personal responsibility regarding the behavior in the first place. The violence I do to others by fraud and by force are crimes that the government can prosecute because the damage is plain to see and comprehend. But the damage of personal immorality is not so plain, and as diverse as there are people.

I'm not suggesting that one person's porn use, or drug use, or gambling, do not impact other people negatively. Just that there is no clear line that makes any of these more hurtful to others than mean-spiritedness, arrogant and rude behavior, and other obnoxious attributes and actions of people. But at least individuals are forced to take responsibility for how they behave toward others. How they treat others may come back to haunt them. Likewise, individuals should take responsibility for, or manage, their personal habits, obsessions, and addictions. They shouldn't be made into criminals for having them.

And people want to have that responsibility. They want to be free to think for themselves and weigh the benefits and negatives of their lifestyle choices.. When government steps in and says, "No, you can't smoke marijuana," one reasonable reaction is, "Well, maybe I will!" The individual is no longer responsible for his own drug use, the government is. The only thing the individual is responsible for in this case is breaking the law. That might be a childish reaction, but it should be expected. If the law itself treats people like children, many will behave like rebellious children.

Demonizing some personal sins through prohibition make them even more alluring to some, and can excuse bad behavior that isn't banned. "Well, I might tell my daughter I think she's stupid and ugly, but at least I'm not like that cocaine user!" Which should be illegal? Which is worse? When neither is banned, neither is excused.

Government is not here to make us angels, or even to try to make us "virtuous." Only to ensure that we are free to take responsibility for ourselves. And, ultimately, that's what virtue is.

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