The Division of Responsibility

It is odd, perhaps, that just as the federal (read: national) government moves to take primary responsibility for our medical lives, the several states are moving in the other direction. The right to self-medicate is, increasingly, being seen as important. First medical marijuana — a slap on the face to federal nannies — and now recreational use, sees advocacy and advance at the state level.

Any advance in taking full responsibility for medicine, on the part of citizens, individuals, goes against the grain of our collectivist age, and sparks some hope.

Of course, in a sense, it seems 35 years behind the time. For me, anyway.

One of my first contrary political opinions to develop was that liberty rights should include sexual activity and drug use. I must’ve been 15. I disliked politics. I had just spent a summer watching the Watergate hearings, and though I liked Sen. Sam Ervin’s no-nonsense pose and Barbara Jordan’s measured cadences, this did not turn me into a Democrat, or any kind of partisan. I remained skeptical of the whole enterprise. The Vietnam War weighed on my mind. Politicians had mired the nation into that fiasco, and seemed at a loss how to get us out. I didn’t trust them.

No wonder, then, that I approved of rights. They seemed bulwarks against grandstanding politicians who too often proved eager to send people to prison camps and wars.

And so it struck me that, when Gore Vidal suggested that prostitution should be legal, and drug use, too, it made perfect sense to me. It flowed naturally from the ideas of free speech, or religion. Now, unlike most teens, I had no extreme personal interest in “deviant” sexual or medicinal activities. My attitudes to extreme pleasure were rather puritanical, though I had just become a voluptuary of music. Seeing things in terms of a pleasure/pain trade-off put me in a vaguely utilitarian camp. And the utility of rights struck me as paramount.

Drug legalization thus served, in my view, as a test case of principle. The freedom principle, to be exact. When my elders blanched at the idea, I took from their reluctance a fear (on their part) of freedom. They really had little confidence in it, as an organizing principle of society, so to speak. They saw it mainly as an anarchical principle, by which I mean and they meant CHAOS.

I tried to hold the thought in suspension. I certainly knew little of social theory or economics. So I began reading. Could freedom work?

Freedom seemed, to me, as a check upon government abuse, at the very least. Governments went to war. Citizens, at worst, committed murders. It’s hard for normal folk to get together and kill a lot of people. Abe Lincoln said that government existed to help people do together what they couldn’t on their own, separately. No wonder I began reading about anarchism, for the one thing government allowed people to do was kill, kill, kill. It seemed very efficient in channeling human energy — and getting around pesky moral and sentimental notions — to enable everyday folk to support and engage in mass slaughter.

When it comes to drug prohibition, the weirdness of government action exhibits itself starkly. We fear that some people — growing numbers of people — will ruin their lives on drugs. So, government steps in and ruins their lives! And not merely the lives of addicts and pushers, the lives of casual, responsible drug users, too.

The logic of this utilitarian calculus never made much sense to me. If fear of lives being ruined is the motivation behind drug prohibition, ruining lives in an ever-expanding scourge of terror seemed, at least, counter-productive.

A few years after adopting a handful of heretical libertarian thoughts — these included allowing the Amish to educate their kids how they wanted, and the suspicion that mandatory Social Security participation was illiberal and unjust — I finally adopted a general libertarian outlook. I simply could no longer accept as reasonable the many arguments I’d heard for some adults to run other adults’ lives. (Further, a universal, basic right to liberty solved a few problems that politics-as-usual caused, namely the problem of value diversity and interest sacrifice.)

And yet running other people’s lives still receives a fair amount of support in our society.

It has nothing to do with liberty, of course. They say it has everything to do with making the world safer and nicer.

I doubt it.

On The Lesson Applied, a new blog devoted to applying the basic lessons of economics to current affairs, I recently wrote:

The reasons for treating one’s own medicinal use as a right, and the costs of said exercise of the right as one’s own responsibility, are the same here as regarding speech. . . . Each person has the greatest incentive to learn from his/her mistakes, to make the best search for knowledge and advice, so it is almost natural and commonsensical to leave such decisions up to each person, not to “each other.”

This is the chief reason for what I like to call “the division of responsibility.”

Adam Smith helped us understand the division of labor — how people working separately can specialize and, through market exchanges, co-operate to make us all better off. The labor is differentiated. Varied. Politicians’ typical demagoguery regarding “unity” is the very opposite of what serves to make us all better off, at least when it comes to prosperity. We do not want to “come together” in some grand scheme of hand-holding and explicit (communist) co-operation. We want, instead, to celebrate our diverse actions that co-ordinate through the subtle workings of supply and demand.

Hayek played off this idea when he coined the phrase division of knowledge. Knowledge is distributed throughout society, in individuals, and — because often tacit, and not explicit — resists being corralled into any centrally planned scheme of unity.

The next step in understanding the logic of liberty is to understand the importance of the natural division of responsibility. This is “natural” in the sense that the division of knowledge is natural. Human beings are separate persons. It takes a lot of effort to get people to engage in straight-forward co-operation beyond, say, groups of 150 or so. (See the writings of Malcolm Gladwell on this.) Each person has separate judgment. Each person acts separately, with brain tied by nerve to muscle, muscle tied by tendon to bone. Even a hundred men marching in lockstep time requires a special explanation for their apparent unity, since that unity is artificial, a contrivance. All attempts to hijack the division of responsibility into coalesced groups, with some people having more responsibility than others, requires special argumentation.

I repeatedly come back to drug use because, in mainstream culture, it seems to be an anomaly, a problem for the division of responsibility. Drug abusers become less responsible. Therefore, it is said, others must step in. Take their responsibility away, for a time — excusing it, like AA does; hobbling their freedom, like institutions do — in order to fix them, allowing them to take responsibility again.

This point of view suffers from some problems. One is, of course, the oft-underlying notion that with some drugs or with some people (commonly, both, together) there is no difference between “user” and “abuser” of drugs. That is, the drugs lead ineluctably to irresponsible addiction.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this is not true of most people about most drugs. And yet, many of these drugs — including one of the most innocuous of all, cannabis — remain proscribed. The freedom of responsible users is sacrificed to the alleged “needs” of irresponsible “abusers.” Further, to help abusers, responsible users’ lives are ruined, or severely harmed. This is the typical “sacrifice” scenario that politicians engage in. Harm some to help others. The nobility of this seems hard to demonstrate.

Holding people responsible for their actions is sometimes difficult — especially when sympathy often nudges us to extend mercy. This is fine and good, unless the irresponsible have caused much harm, such as running over a child on a bicycle, or Stephen King jogging down the highway. Those who engage in risky activities (such as drinking alcohol or taking downers and then driving, or parachuting over a power substation) that can negatively affect others not unreasonably deserve to be treated as something more than as a target for a tort claim. Being lenient with those who have adopted irresponsibility as a way of life seems dangerous, in the long run. Irresponsible itself.

It should be remembered, though, what John Stuart Mill explained, years ago. The irresponsible still have their uses. The public service that a drunk, lying in a ditch or toddering around, soiled, wetting himself, performs for the rest of us, though incalculable, is nevertheless real. The modern method of unequal responsibiilty, of professional oversight, etc. may seem to some as “humane.” What it does is treat adults as children, and robs actual children of object lessons: “See Mr. Slobovo there? Smell him? He’s a drunk. It’s dangerous to drink too much. You could end up like that.”

Indeed, the modern re-distribution of responsibility serves, most, to hide from public eyes the distress of those who have failed to take responsibility. We do not want to see failures. They bother us. It is hard to tell them to go away. (And yet sometimes we must do just that: Go away, I cannot help you; you have gone beyond the point where I have anything to do with — you are as poison.) So, through the help of the state, we round up the drunks and put them in “homes” where they can spend their remaining days of degradation away from sensitive souls and shaded eyes.

I am sorely tempted to say that much of the modern welfare state is, in effect, little more than beautification program for those who do not want to see or think about the bad choices of others.

The “liberal” proponents of the system, in fact, seem to exist in their own beloved state of denial: Choice has nothing to do with it, they say. It’s disease. It’s genetics. It’s . . . blankout. By taking away expectations of or demands for responsibility from some obviously irresponsible individuals, they undermine the very notion, and provide a salve for their salvation-obsessed souls. And, in practice, make sure that more people become irresponsible (having reduced the costs of irresponsibility) while making them feel good about themselves (surely a “drug” in and of itself — one, today, much abused).

Finally, the division of responsibility according to the separateness of persons needs defense in this realm, especially, for reasons I wrote on my blog last night:

I defend the freedom to self-medicate not only because I believe people — users and non-users alike — would be better off with the right, and exercising their personal responsibility. I also believe that servility on one issue will provide precedent and rationale for further erosions of freedom into other realms of life. If you can win an argument about drug freedom, other freedoms should be pieces of “cake.”

I confess: Lack of interest in this issue by some libertarian economists puzzles me. It is such a paradigm case issue. It resonates on so many levels. It strikes me that if you cannot get a right-winger to adopt the position, the person cannot be trusted on much of anything. And if a left-winger has no interest in the position, there is probably no hope for him to adopt liberty on other issues, too.

Freedom to self-medicate, then, remains a strong test case for liberality in political attitude, a chief indicator whether a person is ready, truly, to push for the division of responsibility in other realms of life, too.

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