VICES ARE NOT CRIMES
Darryl Strawberry is perhaps not a very savory character, but a criminal he is not. He has been classed—and hounded—as a criminal by a law that brutally punishes adults for the substances they ought to be able to ingest, inhale or inject at their own peril.
The former major-league star was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating probation, following a 1999 conviction on drug and solicitation of prostitution charges.
So Strawberry is a cokehead with an appetite for unwholesome sex. Will someone tell me why this is the business of anyone other than him and his unfortunate wife?
There is no shortage of meddling third parties that find certain consensual, capitalistic acts between adults to be offensive. Some people want to stop the trade in pornography. Others would like to make it prohibitive for adults to purchase cigarettes or junk food.
For one thing, "Consumer sovereignty," as libertarian economist Pierre Lemieux notes, "reflects the assumption that each individual knows better than anybody else what is good for him. This idea runs counter to state paternalism, whether in smoking, pension plans, drugs or whatever."
For another, any transaction that was at the time of occurrence voluntary, and hence beneficial to the participants, can, retrospectively, be denounced as harmful and regrettable. A litigious culture facilitates this trend. Government and other busybodies, however, would do well to consider that if an exchange is voluntary, then both parties expect to benefit from it.
Where no force or violence is involved, a voluntary exchange is, by definition, always mutually beneficial, inasmuch as, at the time of the exchange, the buyer of the drugs valued the purchase more than the money he paid for it, and the seller valued the money more than the goods he sold.
Third parties have no place in transactions between consenting adults, unless these transactions infringe directly—not foreseeably—on their property or person. Strawberry and his suppliers have appetites and values I don't share. But I fail to see how their decadent deals infringe on my rights.
Having arbitrarily decided that certain patterns of consumption are potentially worse for individual and society than others, the policy pinheads have proceeded to preemptively trample the constitutional rights of people like Strawberry, before the foreseeable harm to society occurs.
If we accept state aggression based on prior restraint arguments, then aggress we must ad absurdum. Why not prevent all teenagers from driving, or, even better, all socialist parents from procreating, lest they sire proponents of state theft?
"Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which a man harms the person or property of another," wrote Lysander Spooner, the great 19th-century theorist of liberty. And government has no business treating vices as crimes.
Drug use is a private choice. Incarcerating people for their consumption choices has the logical consistency of arresting a survivor of suicide for attempted murder. If for harming himself a man forfeits his liberty, then it can't be said that he has dominion over his body. It implies that someone else—government—owns him. People ought to be arrested only for crimes they perpetrate against another's person or property.
Be mindful, though, that the coercive, therapeutic state is a poor substitute for the avenging state. Justice Florence Foster, who presided over Strawberry's case, had repeatedly opted for compulsory treatment for the eight-time all-star.
Law-enforced medical treatment, however, must be as volubly opposed as prison. Over and above the immorality of coerced wealth distribution, treatment schemes paid by the taxpayer ensure that those of us who choose to refrain from drug taking subsidize the lifestyle of the addict. Less addiction will come about, not by distributing resources from the risk averse to the reckless, stealing from responsible adults, and rewarding the rash and imprudent—but by making the addict responsible for the risks he takes.
This is not an easy task given that some self-destructive behavior has acquired disability status and is legally protected. When insurers cannot transfer to the addict the full costs of the risk he poses, they must make those of us who choose to watch our diets, exercise, and refrain from smoking or drug taking the repository for these costs. Insurance must be permitted to exercise its mandate to discriminate between risk groups. With such discrimination comes the incentive on the part of the insured to avoid lifestyles or behaviors that incur costs.
Reducing addiction lies, then, in withdrawing the perverse incentives that reinforce the maladaptive behavior. To use 12-step locution, state-mandated treatment programs are "enablers." The dismal failure of state programs launched by the addiction industry, the high rates of recidivism they yield, and the pesky fact that most quitters among smokers do so solo—goes to show that addicts quit when they decide to. And they are more likely to be nudged in that direction when made to shoulder the consequences of their lifestyle.
Once the state retreats from punishing vices, it will fall, once again, to custom and religion to reinvigorate those informal checks on behavior the therapeutic state has undermined. Shame, loss of face, being denied membership, excommunication, counseling and support are some of the ways moral communities have, in previous eras, kept their members in check.
Drug addiction, of course, is a chosen habit or lifestyle—not a disease. A society that cleaves to a worldview that parlays misdeeds into diseases does so at its own peril. Darryl Strawberry, sadly, happens to have a serious and genuine disease. Strawberry's metastatic cancer is yet another good reason to set him free and cut him loose.
© By ILANA MERCER
May 8, 2002