Danger Is My Middle Name – And So Is Yours

Exclusive to STR

December 3, 2007

As soon as there is life there is danger. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Danny Shahar wrote an excellent column for STR recently (Paternalists Just Don't Understand) about drug prohibition. Shahar's column reminded me that I have been meaning to write a column of my own on the topic, covering only the two most basic arguments for freedom on this issue. So, with a nod of appreciation to Danny, here is that two-point column:

First, other people are not your property. If you would like to remind others of this most basic of rights -- of the utter and complete right to self-ownership enjoyed by every human being -- STR sells very nice bumper stickers and t-shirts with that exact message.

"Other people are not your property" is the entire freedom philosophy in a nutshell. Nothing else need be added; if that one sentiment were widely lived up to and enforced,* there would be no tyranny in this world, by definition.

Can such an extreme position really be lived up to? Of course: it's called "being civilized." And most of us do live up to that standard in our daily lives; those who don't are likely to be arrested for coercion of some sort, be it rape or robbery or even "coercion" by name (last year I was on the jury in the trial of someone accused of exactly that). Busybodies and those who insist on often telling others what to do are reminders that we are far from the levels of love and freedom necessary for a healthy society, but even most such people refrain from using force to impose their views and desires on others -- except for the political process, the single weapon against human rights that has the full sanction of the State.

Get a gang of armed men together to pull a no-knock raid on your neighbor because he uses alcohol or pot and you'll be the one put in prison, but get laws passed that result in armed agents of the state doing the same thing and you're off the hook: You are an accomplice to violence against (in this case, millions of) non-violent men, women, and even children, yet you will never be held accountable for your role in these violations of human rights, including for the many deaths and ruined lives that result.

The good news is that people really can live without any supposed "need" to control other people's behavior. This is true both in primitive and in modern settings. For example, consider the Yequana tribe, living without any modern technology to speak of in the Amazon jungle:

"The notion of ownership of other persons is absent among the Yequana . . . . Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence -- let alone coerce -- anyone." -- Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost

Modern-day examples -- in addition to those relatively healthy individuals and families one finds amidst the more general sea of sheep and control-freaks -- may be found at Summerhill and Sudbury Valley schools, and other schools like them. For those unaware of how amazingly different these schools are from ordinary coercive schools, the 1949 British Government's Inspectors' Report on Summerhill provides an excellent overview by a third party, and includes these comments by the Inspectors:

  • "The main principle upon which the School is run is freedom . . . . the degree of freedom allowed to the children is very much greater than the inspectors had seen in any other school and the freedom is real. No child, for instance, is obliged to attend any lessons. As will be revealed later, the majority do attend for the most part regularly, but one pupil was actually at this School for 13 years without once attending a lesson and is now an expert toolmaker and precision instrument maker. This extreme case is mentioned to show that the freedom given to children is genuine and is not withdrawn as soon as its results become awkward."

  • ". . . the children are full of life and zest. Of boredom and apathy there was no sign. An atmosphere of contentment and tolerance pervades the School."

  • ". . . the children's manners are delightful. They may lack, here and there, some of the conventions of manners, but their friendliness, ease and naturalness, and their total lack of shyness and self-consciousness made them very easy, pleasant people to get on with."

  • ". . . initiative, responsibility and integrity are all encouraged by the system and that so far as such things can be judged, they are in fact being developed."

  • "Summerhill education is not necessarily hostile to worldly success."

The report backs up that last point with a list of degrees held and careers followed by former pupils. Clearly, the lack of a "normal," coercive education has not harmed the children of Summerhill. More importantly, Summerhill clearly produces -- and has, for over 75 years --  exactly the kind of people we would all want as neighbors.

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It is worth pointing out that the concept of universal self-ownership is "extreme" only in the same sense that "every person must have air to breathe" is extreme. Both sentiments are rigid and absolute, and for the same reason: Healthy life, and eventually life itself, depends upon them. We need air because without it we die; we need freedom for the same reason: Without freedom we die in small, inner ways and too-often in the "bang, you're dead" sort of way that governments inflict with wars and firing squads and so on.

Self-ownership, unlike some other basic, natural needs, does not require getting something (e.g., food or water) that others might be forced to give you. Universal self-ownership simply means that no person owns another and thus that no person has the right to enslave or initiate coercion against anyone else. Coercion in self-defense (when the other person has initiated an assault of some kind) is different--an unpleasant last resort, but not the same as starting the fight, as your mom and dad probably taught you.

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The second basic point relevant to drug prohibition is that everything, without exception, has its dangers, and thus using the excuse of "danger" to force people to avoid something or (as with seatbelt laws) to do something is not merely a "slippery slope"--it immediately says that government owns your life completely, since every minute of every day, no matter what you do or don't do, you are subjecting yourself to danger. Eek!

That is not sophistic or based on technicalities that do not matter in the real world: The truth is that many of the things we do are dramatically more dangerous than using illegal drugs. Walking down the street, driving your car, eating a high-fat diet, smoking cigarettes, and a great many other ordinary things--not to mention motorcycle stunt-riding or auto racing or skydiving--are far more dangerous than smoking pot or even using "hard" drugs. For example, here is a list of dangers expressed as the number of days each takes off your life:

Days off your life from various activities:**

  •  Eating meat regularly = 2,555 days
  •  Smoking a pack of cigarettes daily (men) = 2,250 days
  •  Smoking a pack a day (women) = 800 days
  •  Being 30 percent overweight = 1,300 days
  •  Driving a motor vehicle = 207 days
  •  Alcohol = 130 days
  •  Accidents in the home = 95 days
  •  Breathing polluted air = 77 days
  •  Walking down the street = 37 days
  •  Misusing legal drugs = 90 days
  •  Using illegal drugs = 18 days
  •  Coffee = 6 days

Any list of the major causes of death will show you that "using illegal drugs" is not a serious danger in comparison to many common and legal activities. Below is a snippet of CDC data on the major causes of death in the United States; "using illegal drugs" is nowhere on the list, but heart disease, cancer, strokes, and other problems strongly associated with diet certainly are.

The 15 leading causes of death in 2004:

  • Diseases of heart (heart disease);

  • Malignant neoplasms (cancer);

  • Cerebrovascular diseases (stroke);

  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases;

  • Accidents (unintentional injuries);

  • Diabetes mellitus (diabetes);

  • Alzheimer's disease;

  • Influenza and pneumonia;

  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis (kidney disease);

  • Septicemia;

  • Intentional self-harm (suicide);

  • Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis;

  • Essential (primary) hypertension and hypertensive renal disease (hypertension);

  • Parkinson's disease;

  • Pneumonitis due to solids and liquids.

Source: www.cdc.gov [via usa-healthinsurance.com]

There is a great deal of further data on the causes of death, and on other ways to evaluate the dangers in life. Here's a Wikipedia page on the subject; you'll find "drug use disorders" down near the bottom of this long list, at 0.15% of all deaths (for comparison, cardiovascular diseases are shown as 29.34% of all deaths). Wired ran a story titled "One Million Ways to Die" last year that includes an entertaining Homeland Security-style danger chart. The CDC's own page on "leading causes of death" may be found here.

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Once again, my point is not that drugs are safe--they are safe, compared to eating a junk-food diet, but "safe" is only a relative term. Nothing is completely safe, including eating and breathing. And if nothing is safe, then throwing people in prison for doing something that endangers them is insane, even without considering the dangers of arrest and imprisonment, which are substantial. Using coercion to "save people" from their own choices is a huge, horrifying mistake that can only lead to ever-larger disaster, because the list of dangerous activities includes everything that people might ever do.

If others have the right to forcibly prevent you from choosing your own dangers, then they have the right to determine every moment of your life. Slaves and prisoners live under that level of control, but no free or healthy society can long survive within such a framework. Every choice has danger; therefore choosing which dangers are personally worth the risk is the essence of living.

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Given that the State has always been, by far, the most dangerous and deadly human invention, it is especially strange and distasteful that the State forces its alleged concern for our safety upon us at gunpoint. One might gauge the sincerity of this concern for human safety and well-being by observing the behavior of governments. For example, governments murdered over two hundred and sixty million people in the 20th Century, and waged dozens of wars in which millions more people died, and in which millions beyond that were maimed or injured or traumatized or impoverished or otherwise harmed. The United States dropped atomic bombs on the mostly civilian residents of two large Japanese cities and fire-bombed other cities in both the Pacific and European theaters during World War II, burning to death hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in firestorms that did little if anything to help win the war. The U.S. government has killed 11,000 or more of its own citizens as a side effect of building and testing nuclear weapons, and continues to use radioactive and chemically poisonous depleted uranium in the Middle East and at target ranges in the United States and many other parts of the world. FDA-approved drugs and government-licensed and -regulated doctors kill, combined, perhaps 200,000 Americans per year -- and the list of government-caused death and misery goes on and on.

If I want safety advice, I'll get it from another source than coercive government, thank you.

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As we all know, government doesn't stop with "advice" -- it goes the extra mile, sending a SWAT team to your home if it suspects you might be endangering yourself with, say, pot or cocaine. Better you should risk getting shot and killed, or at least tasered and cuffed and then thrown in prison with violent criminals, than risk hurting yourself with an extremely safe herb or a stimulant. Our masters are so certain of this that over the last few decades they have protected many millions of people by arresting, convicting, and imprisoning them on drug charges. A December 9, 2006 Reuters story by James Vicini notes that "We now imprison more people for drug law violations than all of western Europe, with a much larger population, incarcerates for all offences."

There isn't much danger to be had from using marijuana or even from most other illegal drugs, but there is some -- and that, ultimately, is the pseudo-justification for the violence and cruelty and corruption and astonishing monetary expense associated with the War on Drugs. The only way to effectively end this nightmare is for enough people to refuse to accept the lie that the State has any right to forcibly protect us from our own choices.

Once you understand that everything is dangerous, and that many ordinary activities are far more dangerous than drug use, it becomes clear that State-enforced prohibitions are not only morally bankrupt (because they violate your right to self-ownership) but also obvious, open-ended tools for tyranny. To accept the idea that government has the right to forcibly protect you from your own dangerous choices is to accept that you are a slave, because every moment of your life contains danger, no matter what you are doing.

To those strongly concerned about the dangers (physical, moral, or other) of drugs, I say: Please express your concern in a civilized fashion. Supporting the violence and coercion of prohibition is no more civilized than supporting initiated violence and coercion in any other part of life. The violence and coercion of prohibition are far more dangerous -- and not only to our health -- than the drugs that prohibition is supposedly saving us from.

Violence and coercion harm, rather than protect, the love and freedom we are all born for.

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* No, I am not suggesting enforcing rights by means of government. A number of books and other resources detail how protection of rights and enforcement of justice can be (and often have been and in many situations still are) handled by non-government groups and methods. Good places to start if you are new to the idea include the classic The Market for Liberty by Morris Tannehill and Linda Tannehill and The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, a collection of essays published by The University of Michigan Press.

** Sources: National Safety Council, National Center for Health Statistics, FBI, Statistical Abstract of the U.S. , "Catalog of Risks by B. Cohen and I.S. Lee, "Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention" by D. Schottenfeld and J.F. Fraumeni Jr.

Found at http://www.afn.org/~savanna/risk.htm but I believe this list to be a subset of one published in Science/80 (or perhaps Science/81; the name changed every year) -- a magazine no longer in business and predating the web. Regardless of the provenance and accuracy of this list of dangers (I expect adjustments would be in order, today, for many of the dangers listed -- also, several of the list items are poorly defined; for instance, does "alcohol" mean one beer a week, a quart of gin per day, or what?), many sources confirm that use of illegal drugs is, in fact, far less dangerous than many other activities allowed by law and which most of us feel little concern about.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.