Libertarianism, wherethehellfore art thou?
That’s what I felt like screaming after reading Jacob Sullum’s execrable description of his salvia hallucinations. The print edition of the December Reason isn’t available online yet. [Update: IT LIVES…! Here.] You should thank whatever god you believe in for that little fact. [Update: If you watched some of the lame “tripping on salvia videos, please don’t try clawing your eyes out.]
I almost can’t stand reading Reason anymore. I feel miserable about that. I want Reason to be better than it is. Not New Yorker better, or Harper’s better, or whatever the beturtlenecked metrosexual literati think is “better.” Just better somehow. I don’t know. They could start by dumping their senior editor’s lame descriptions of mind-altering substances.
Sullum’s little fantasia is dispiriting. While liberty is being assaulted from angles too numerous to count, Aldous Sullum had to spend a weekend staring at—I’m not making this up—“the head of a human-sized cat wearing a knight’s helmet, a wizard with a flowing beard, and a wolf with glowing eyes.”
Too much of the wacky tobaccy and you become a caricature. That’s what Sullum has done. Sullum’s goofy little vision quest is prima facie evidence why libertarians will never have much political clout in this country. I’ve known plenty of people whose M.O. was “mind expansion.” I’m sure their inner space was overpopulated with leaping gnomes and gentle bedposts, but their outer space usually reeked of condescension, cigarette smoke and week-old underwear. None of them were leaders, though they fancied themselves as such. Most slept late and spent their best brain cells trying to rationalize why other people didn’t “get” them. Doing all that requires more time than your garden-variety ardent political activist has to spare. Hence the national wheel-spin that is libertarianism.
Don’t get me wrong on this; I’m anti-war on drugs. The war on drugs is a win-win-win for government, drug cartels and users. Governments win because the war on drugs gives cover for their less legitimate acts; it gives them plenty of raisons d’être and distracts us all from their thievery. The cartels win because the illegality of buying and selling drugs keeps competition at a minimum, and thus prices high. Users win because they get something to complain about and a cross to bear: “Oooh, I just need this one release—and the man just keeps me from [getting high, communing with god, seeing the black dog, dropping out, etc., etc. ad-freaking-infinitum].” Were drugs legalized, all three parties would suddenly get back to business. Government would start enforcing legitimate laws. Drug cartels would stop doling out Columbian neckties and lacing hashish with Tide and get to producing cheaper, higher quality products. Using would suddenly be bereft of counter-cultural cache. No longer able to wax awkwardly poetical about their drug-induced visions, users would either drop the habit entirely or retreat into their own worlds, sparing us their cringe-inducing self-reverential lameness.
A year or so ago, at the height of mania about his book Liberal Fascism, I sent a frustrated fanboy email to Jonah Goldberg about a nascent liberaltarianism—a freakish mixture of liberal activism and libertarian wish-fulfillment. Goldberg never responded—why would he?—but the point of my email was that liberaltarians were canaries in the mine shaft. They were proof that the statist-corporatist-fascist vapors of the current political zeitgeist were strong enough to convince certain members of the libertarian vanguard that individual freedom wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As a recovering quasi-liberal, I returned to libertarianism thinking it a bracing astringent. Instead I found some of its principle exponents ready to make peace with paternalists and statists. Having read Sullum, I now know the terms of the truce: we’ll let you have your bloated, over-weening state, as long as its fat folds don’t press too hard against us while we’re tripping on salvia.
The idea I’m trying to get at is that work like Sullum’s, and Kerry Howley’s, tells me that libertarianism has lost its way. It isn’t the job of libertarians to prove drugs should be legal by doing drugs and implicitly bragging about it; it isn’t the job of libertarians to actively undermine other people’s cultural norms. The job of libertarians is to argue over and over again that banning stuff diminishes the freedom quotient rather than expanding it; that a diminished set of behavioral choices means a diminished individual. You don’t need to smoke pot to realize that keeping people from choosing not to stunts their growth as individuals. People define themselves by the choices they make—unfortunately for Sullum and his chivalric man-cat—and that’s precisely why libertarians should calmly step away from the salvia plant and the idea that promoting “alternative lifestyles” is more important than promoting freedom in general. The sad thing about Sullum’s creepy sidebar is that the larger piece in which it is featured is pretty good. Sullum is up in arms over hair-trigger legislators itching for pre-emptive salvia bans and exaggerating the effects and prominence of salvia use. The piece is well-written and well-researched, and none of the points he makes in it would be diminished if his personal experience with salvia were not included. But he includes it anyway. Why? To be edgy? For shock value? Hearing users detail the wonders of their drug of choice doesn’t help the movement. It’s called bias, and there are rational reasons why straight-laced bible thumpers think twice before believing a pothead’s list of the virtues of his beloved cannabis sativa. Potheads are similarly skeptical about the virtues of life sans-herb. That’s their prerogative. As libertarians, let’s dig into the virtues of this mutual prerogative and promote it as a means to the end of individual freedom and growth.