The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an article advocating the decriminalization of drugs. Economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy argue the war on drugs has failed, and social costs of continuing with our current laws are too high. Their solution is to legalize drugs use, and eventually the drug market.
The facts seem straightforward. We spend a lot of money trying to prevent drug use ($40 billion they report). Laws against using and selling drugs put very large numbers of men in prison. Like prohibition, criminalization of drugs makes their sale very lucrative—and often dangerous, violent, and destructive of the neighborhoods where business is done. Indeed, whole countries are now convulsed by violence associated with the drug trade.
Given these facts, the argument for legalization isn’t stupid. But it’s not right.
Consider the analogy to no-fault divorce. Back in the day smart people argued that old divorce laws were unworkable, and that they did more harm then good. There’s no fighting social change, we were told, and the punitive divorce laws just make a bad situation worse. Moreover, some argued that existing laws disadvantaged poor people who could not afford to go to Las Vegas for a few weeks to qualify for divorce there, could not pay for lawyers, etc. Better, therefore, to “decriminalize” divorce, as it were. Yes, it might lead to an increase in divorce, but not by much, and in any event the social benefits would far outweigh the negatives.
That’s pretty much the way Becker and Murphy argue. They allow that legalization is likely to lead to some increase in drug use, but they assure us that it won’t be much. And they even predict that decriminalization will take the stigma out of drug use, which will help people get help to beat addiction to drugs. That’s like the argument for no-fault divorce that predicted that taking out the stigma would very likely lead to better outcomes for kids of parents who split up.
I believe we will legalize drugs over the next decades. It fits with the way our meritocracy governs. And I think Becker and Murphy are kidding themselves about the consequences. As has been the case the rest of the cultural revolution of the last fifty years, the meritocrats will use their new freedom wisely, while the weakest and most vulnerable members of society won’t. Drug use will join illegitimacy, family instability, and educational dysfunction as problems to be managed and ameliorated.
Again, the parallel to divorce helps. No-fault divorce became law in many states in the late sixties and early seventies. (It happened quickly, as will legalization of drugs, I think.) During the next decade divorce rates among elites went up. Then they stabilized and went down. Today rich people rarely divorce (the rate is higher than before no-fault, but much lower than most people realize). It’s the rest of society that divorces promiscuously.
The same two-Americas scenario is the likely long-term result of drug legalization. In fact, it’s already the case. My kids went to an inner city high school in Omaha, Nebraska. By their account drinking is widespread, but drug use is almost entirely among the dropouts and non college-bound students. That’s partly a function of criminalization, although underage drinking is illegal, which doesn’t seem to deter the college bound students. Far more relevant is the fact that drugs are more addictive, more powerful, and more destructive that alcohol. Kids well socialized by upper middle class parents are sensitive to these risks, and for the most part they keep their distance.
Legalization? Easier access to drugs will give upper middle class kids an even greater advantage over all the rest. Like divorce, they’ll have the social capital necessary to resist some (but not all) the temptations. The rest? They lack the social capital, and so will be more likely to become victims of the new regime of legal drugs, just as they’ve become victims of no fault divorce and the sexual revolution more broadly.
Discerning the common good requires more than doing calculations to minimize social costs. It involves passing laws and spending sometimes scarce resources to promote and protect a view of what it means to live an honorable and dignified life. That’s why we have laws against drug use, and rightly so. When we get rid of those laws, it will be because we’ve adopted a different view of the common good, one that is agnostic about what it means to live an honorable and dignified life (even as the meritocrats impose a substantive view on their kids). That’s been the trend among secular elites for decades, which is why I think legalization is likely to happen.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.