Two Cheers for Denver: Let’s End the War on Unapproved States of Consciousness

On May 7, voters in Denver, Colorado narrowly approved a measure de-criminalizing “magic mushrooms” — mushrooms containing the consciousness-altering compound psilocybin. The measure, National Public Radio reports, “effectively bars the city from prosecuting or arresting adults 21 or older who possess them. In the ballot language, adults can even grow the fungus for personal use and be considered a low priority for Denver police.”

Those are both great things. A third great thing would have been an order to Denver’s police to simply ignore “magic mushrooms” altogether, effectively legalizing sale of the fungi as well (assuming there would be much of a market for something that’s easily found “in the wild,” growing on everything from rotting wood to cow patties) . But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Yay, Denver.

The political justification for this measure (and others like it pending in other polities) is the growing evidence that psilocybin can be useful in treating depression, anxiety, and migraines. How many have needlessly suffered due to the research delays caused by its illegalization?

The practical justification for complete legalization of psilocybin (and all other drugs) is that humans have sought altered states of consciousness for as long as we’ve been humans and are always going to, no matter how many are imprisoned or killed for it. Psilocybin use goes back at least 6,000 years (per prehistoric cave art depictions of its use) and some even plausibly theorize that it was the biblical “manna” consumed by the Hebrews as they wandered the desert for 40 years.

The moral justification for complete legalization (and all other drugs) is that what you put in your body, and for what purpose, is your business and no one else’s.

Alcohol prohibition and the century-long “war on drugs” are proof that it’s impossible to imprison enough people to change that fact of human nature. In fact, the world’s drug warriors haven’t even been able to keep drugs out of prison itself! How, then, do they hope to eliminate drugs from society at large? And why should we allow them to continue trying? The “war on drugs” is completely immoral, not to mention insanely expensive both financially and in terms of the effects it has on our communities.

This is not a complicated issue:

Don’t want to eat magic mushrooms? Don’t eat magic mushrooms then.

Don’t want to smoke cannabis? Politely decline the joint when it’s offered.

Don’t want to drink a beer? Order a nice frosty mug of root beer instead.

Don’t want OTHER people to eat magic mushrooms, smoke cannabis, or drink beer? Learn to mind your own business instead of asking politicians to bust heads because you won’t. Problem solved.

Yes, it really is that simple. Thanks again, Denver.

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Tortured “Complexity”

When someone is about to start doing some mental contortionism in order to try to justify statism, they’ll often make the statement, “it’s a very complex issue“. No, it really isn’t. They’re lying to try to appear deep and smart and to justify the unjustifiable.

“Gun control” isn’t a complex issue. You have no right to forbid weapons of defense to anyone, and you can’t delegate a right you don’t have.

“Drug legalization” isn’t a complex issue. You have no right to forbid the manufacture, possession, or sale, nor the ingestion, inhalation, or injection of substances. You can’t magically acquire that right just because you think it’s necessary. You have no right to have people do things you have no right to do without asking them to become bad guys. Prohibition is enforced by bad guys, only.

Immigration” [sic] isn’t a complex issue. You have the right to allow (or bar) anyone on (or from) your property. For any reason or no reason at all. You have the right to hire or trade with anyone. Your rights end at your property lines– the only legitimate borders.

“Taxation” isn’t a complex issue. It is theft– specifically extortion. Nothing can make it something else.

Complex issues” look complex only when someone adds all sorts of twists and turns, bells and whistles, bows and ribbons, and flags and laws. At the base, there’s probably a simple ethically right thing to do and hundreds of wrong things to do. They have to tell lies to justify the wrong things– the statist things.

When someone lies and calls a simple issue a complex issue you can be certain they are looking for ways to justify doing wrong. I’ve run out of patience with the lies told to harm others.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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The Most Controversial Belief

Because I’m both a Libertarian and a loudmouth, I’m frequently hit with questions about libertarianism (and the Libertarian Party). Recently this one came up:

“What is the most controversial belief of Libertarians?”

Could it be our support of immigration freedom (and, generally, freedom to travel)?

Or our demand for separation of school and state?

Perhaps our hard-line support for gun rights?

Or our stand for legalization of all drugs?

How about our advocacy for keeping the government out of the sex lives of consenting adults (including marriage, and including sex for pay)?

Or our belief that who you do or don’t do business with — including for healthcare and retirement — is your decision and no one else’s to make?

My answer: It’s all of those, and others. But it really boils down to one issue.

The most controversial belief of libertarians (and partisan Libertarians) is the belief that you’re generally both more entitled and more qualified to run your life than someone else is.

Who considers that belief controversial? “Mainstream” politicians and their supporters.

Why do they consider that belief controversial? Because they consider themselves entitled and qualified to run your life for you, whether you like it or not. And, of course, to bill you for the costs of their supervision.

Politics isn’t persuasion. Politics is force.

Whether the issue is immigration, or education, or self-defense, or drug use,  or sex, or commerce, or, heck, what color you paint your house or how long you let the grass on your lawn grow, the political approach is not to present an argument and trust you to make the right decision. It’s to decide “for” you, then beat you down if you disobey (or fail to pay them for their services).

Libertarianism — even the “political” variety — isn’t really very political at all. It’s anti-political. As one fun meme puts it, libertarians are “diligently plotting to take over the world and leave you alone.”

Libertarians only recognize one valid constraint on your actions: A universal, mutual constraint against aggression, also known as initiation of force.

The simple version, courtesy of Matt Kibbe: Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.

When you throw the first punch, or pick someone’s pocket, or otherwise forcibly interpose yourself between someone else and that someone’s life, liberty, or property, you’re not running your own life. You’re trying to run theirs.

And that’s the only thing libertarians agree you should be stopped from doing or penalized (in a manner consistent with restitution, not “punishment”) for doing. Even if it’s “for their own good.”

If you’re down with that idea, congratulations: You’re a libertarian.

If you’re not down with that idea, I hope you’ll think it through more carefully.

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This One Weird Trick for Legalizing Marijuana

Governor Andrew Cuomo “insisted Monday (April 1) that New York will pass a law to legalize recreational pot before the Legislature adjourns in June,” The New York Post reports. He’s been promising legalization for some time. Many New Yorkers had hoped the measure would be included in this year’s state budget.

What’s the hold-up? “You still need to control and regulate,” says Cuomo. “You don’t want 14-year-olds having access to marijuana, so how you do it is frankly the tougher part of the equation. In the rush of the budget, we couldn’t do it intelligently.”

News flash for Governor Cuomo and New York’s legislators (and for politicians in all the other states lagging the legalization trend): Those 14-year-olds already have access to marijuana. So does everyone else.

Sure, the price of “illegal” marijuana might be slightly higher than the price of “legal” marijuana (to make the profits worth the risk of going to jail), but anyone who wants a bag of weed can get one in a New York minute.

And they’ll still be able to get it after legalization, no matter what byzantine regulatory schemes the politicians come up with and no matter how solemnly they aver that those schemes are “for the chilllllldren.”

Here’s a weird trick for legalizing marijuana:

Legalize marijuana.

Yes, that’s really all there is to it.

If you feel some irrational need to “protect the children” from a plant, set an age limit. Problem solved.

Yes, they’ll ignore it.  Just like they ignore the age limits on alcohol and tobacco. They’ll ignore it even if you only allow it to be sold in licensed facilities. They’ll get fake IDs, or find helpful adults, or just buy it on the black market like they do now. They’ll ignore it, and they’ll ignore you. But hey, knock yourself out.

Confused about how to tax marijuana? Fine — DON’T tax it. Or at least don’t tax it any differently than any other similar plant. Deem it a non-taxable food, or a taxable confection, or a taxable houseplant. There, you’re done.

There’s nothing complicated about this. People have used marijuana for millennia. New Yorkers have used marijuana since there have been New Yorkers. They’re using marijuana now and they’ll be using marijuana a hundred years from now.

The only relevant question is whether or not they should go to jail for using it.

The only correct answer to that question is no, they shouldn’t.

Legalize it, New York. All you other states, too. Let’s get this silly war on a plant over with. The plant won. The plant has never not been winning. Surrender already. It’s good policy, it’s good politics, and it’s just the right thing to do.

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Why Wait for 2021? End the Federal War on Marijuana Now!

The Boston Globe‘s Naomi Martin and James Pindell report that all of 2020’s formally declared “major party” presidential candidates say they support legalizing marijuana at the federal level. Yes, that includes President Trump.

Great idea! But why should the nearly 2/3 of Americans who want marijuana legalized spend the next 20 months listening to these candidates promise to make it happen? At least eight of them are in a position to get the job done now.

Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are US Senators. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is a US Representative. Any or all of them could introduce and sponsor/co-sponsor bills to legalize marijuana.

Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Any time he cares to pick up the phone and summon the Republican party’s congressional leaders, or maybe just  US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and US Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) over to the White House, he can lean on them to get a bill moving for the same purpose, then sign it when it passes.

There are opportunities here for all of these politicians. The first one to make a big move would get the most credit for ending the federal war on marijuana. The others could earn some brownie points (yes, I went there) for joining in. We could enjoy a rare “bi-partisan” lovefest where political opponents come together for the good of the country.

Of course, the candidates who don’t really mean it when they say the favor legalization would be put on the spot. They’d have  to either follow through or look like the liars they are. That’s a feature, not a bug. Let this issue winnow the field of candidates who thought they could run the clock out on it and then go back to business as usual.

So far, ten states have defied the federal government’s  ban on marijuana and outright legalized it for recreational use, while another 13 have “decriminalized” it instead of treating it as a serious offense. It’s legal for medical use in 33 states and the District of Columbia and another 13 states have relaxed restrictions on one of its most useful ingredients, CBD.

Marijuana legalization is an unstoppable parade. Time for the presidential candidates to run for the front of that parade instead of just standing in the crowd hoping the voters will throw them some candy.

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