"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
The Totalitarian Impulse
What's the difference between: A drug addict and an alcoholic? A drug dealer and a liquor merchant? An international drug ring and an international alcoholic drink distributor? Nothing. The only difference is in legality--not in principle. In our culture, drugs are a "no-no," although it wasn't always so. In other cultures, alcohol is a "no-no." So take your pick. The fact is, alcohol is responsible for far more deaths and ruined lives than drugs. But don't let facts get in the way of a good policy! Last week, a 25 year old Australian--Nguyen Tuong Van--was hanged by the Singapore government for attempting to carry nearly 400 gms (14 ozs) of heroin through Changi Airport. Apparently, he was taking this considerable risk in an attempt to pay off his twin brother's drug-related debts. The state of Singapore imposes a mandatory death sentence for such "crimes." Many Australians were up in arms. "How dare the Singaporean government hang an Australian citizen!" The debate focused on the "barbarity" of hanging and capital punishment in general. More than half of Australians agreed that what Van Nguyen did was bad, evil even, but that he didn't deserve the death penalty. Let's take off the moralistic glasses and look at what was really happening here. Van Nguyen made a decision to trade in drugs, for the purpose of making a profit by selling it to drug users in Australia. He was undertaking a business deal. He was the intermediary between the drug supplier and the drug buyer. He also knew what he was doing was illegal and carried great risk to himself--particularly if caught in Singapore. This proposed transaction was based on the existence of willing sellers and willing buyers. And just as most people believe that what goes on between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedroom is no one else's business, so this transaction was between consenting adults and was no one else's business. But the state, and many people within such states, think otherwise. The issue of whether taking drugs should be illegal or not is quickly sorted out by reference to one question: Who owns your body? Do you believe you should decide what to put into your body, or would you prefer OTHERS to decide that for you? Would you like the state to interfere in your choice of food? Would you like the state to make alcohol illegal (like it has done before)? Would you like the state to determine what vitamins you can take? And don't laugh, it may not be that long before you are forbidden to eat a Big Mac! What is at issue here is not WHAT you put into your body--but whether you have the RIGHT to determine such things. And the even more fundamental question is this: Do you have the right to ingest provably harmful substances? If you answered "yes," advance to GO. And if you answered "no," go to "jail." No one is disputing the harm that can be done by drugs like heroin. No one is disputing the harm that can be done by alcohol. The issue is NOT whether such substances are harmful, but whether you, as an individual, have the right to take them if you so wish. For the sovereign individual, the answer is a resounding "yes." You are the owner of your life. Your neighbour is the owner of his or her life. If other people want to jeopardise their own lives by taking harmful substances, then that is their business, not yours. However, this does not give the drug taker the right to jeopardise OTHER people's lives. If a drug user steals to maintain his habit, then obviously he has committed a crime against another, and must be dealt with appropriately. What muddies the waters of this moral debate is the existence of the welfare state. In the modern, democratic welfare state, each citizen is fleeced of a good part of his income, in order to facilitate income transfers to the needy and less fortunate. These "less fortunate" include people who abuse their bodies by sniffing glue, smoking dope, swigging meths, popping pills, snorting cocaine and injecting heroin, not to mention those who get "loaded" with alcohol. When these "unfortunates" do this, they impose their state of health on the rest of society. Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they expect to be taken care of by those others in society who are NOT ruining their lives in this way. And as a result, a great resentment builds up--against those who abuse their bodies and fill the public hospitals--on the part of the state-abused taxpayers. And fair enough! Why should you or I be forced to pay for the treatment of a drug addict--or an alcoholic, for that matter? Why should you fork out your hard-earned money to assist others who willingly ruin their own lives? The welfare state makes it inevitable that everybody becomes concerned with everybody else's business. After all, if you're a health nut, never drink alcohol, never eat greasy food, never take drugs, etc., why on earth should you be subsidising those who do? And that, dear reader, is the crux of the problem. The welfare state turns us all into busybody brother's keepers. This impulse to interfere in the lives of others is then translated to the ballot box--leading to the election of governments who propose more and more draconian legislation in the attempt to impose standards of "public health." A high profile drugs case like Van Nguyen's highlights the moral minefield that surrounds the drug culture. Just as in the old days of alcohol prohibition (Al Capone and all that), the "war on drugs" pushes the entire drug industry underground. Once a product or service becomes illegal, then the criminal class moves in to do business. Big profits are made from illicit goods and services! Politicians are the masters of the detail, without ever looking at the big picture. The drug trade exists because a significant number of people want to buy drugs. Most politicians think the remedy is to catch, imprison and even kill the drug dealers. This is similar to suggesting that to stop people from eating Big Macs we should round up all McDonald's executives and put them away. The business of drugs exists because of the MARKET for drugs. If politicians were really serious about destroying this market, then they would be more successful if they were to imprison or kill all drug USERS! But I digress. Politicians are not known for clear thinking! Besides, it's unfair to totally blame politicians. As the well known saying goes, "we get the government we deserve." In other words, government (our democratic form of government) is the result of what the majority of people want. Government reflects the values of the majority of people. So a government that spends its time chasing, imprisoning and killing drug dealers is doing so, precisely because that's the mindset of the average voter. They say "charity begins at home." Well, so does the impulse to totalitarianism. The seed which grows into into full blown dictatorship has small and modest beginnings--in the thought processes of your average Joe Blow. The impulse to tell other people what they can or cannot put into their own bodies, is the very same impulse that leads to the belief that one knows what is best for others. I call this the "busybody syndrome." It's the impulse to "do good." Do-gooders are forever justifying their desire to impose their will on others--for their own good, of course. In other words, they embrace the mantle of moral righteousness. Your typical politician is the logical outgrowth of this type of mentality--someone who has reached the pinnacle of do-goodness. He has the capacity to really make a difference, with the help of YOUR tax dollars, of course! When we allow someone like Van Nguyen to be killed by the state, for the act of attempting to provide willing consumers with something he got from willing sellers--it confronts and confounds our moral compass. But the real moral issue is NOT whether he should have been executed--or had his sentence commuted to life in jail--no, the issue is whether or not he should have been punished at all. To put it into perspective (for us Westerners), imagine a situation where an Arabic country, where alcohol is illegal, arrests a man for importing a container of vodka--and executes him. We may not be able to do anything about it, because it's their law, but that doesn't absolve us from considering the moral issue involved. The drugs issue is like the free speech issue. The true test of one's commitment to free speech is the degree to which you'll allow someone to literally say anything--no matter how much you disagree with it. Like Voltaire said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The issue here is the principle. One's defence of free speech is tested by one's willingness to defend the rights of someone whose views you may find morally repugnant. In the same way, the principle of self-ownership demands that a person be allowed to ingest whatever he likes, provided he accepts responsibility for the consequences. And the test of one's commitment to that principle is one's willingness to defend another's right to ingest whatever they like, even when you find that action reprehensible. The fact that someone wants to take heroin is no different in principle from someone wanting to eat Big Macs three times a day. Both can be shown to be bad for you. But that's not the point. The issue is whether you have the right to eat/ingest whatever you so choose. Next time you hear someone (or even yourself) demanding that so and so should NOT be allowed to say that, or ingest this, realise this very attitude is the root of, and the impulse to, what we term "totalitarianism"--the suppression of the individual in favour of the collective (the state). The totalitarian state is nothing more than the collective manifestation of the individual mindset--the sum total of a lot of individual "totalitarian" minds and attitudes. Such a state cannot exist where respect for true individual freedom is the predominant philosophy. Freedom is not achieved by mass rallies, protests or voting. No, freedom is achieved one step at a time, one person at a time, one thought at a time--when you put the morality of freedom at work in your own life and thinking. To eliminate totalitarianism, in all its forms, it is first necessary to eliminate the thinking that gives rise to it--the impulse to want to run other people's lives.