Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dalrymple on Drugs: A First Draft

Yesterday in the comment thread to this article at Orphans of Liberty on the question of the legalization of drugs, contributor Sackerson said in the comments that he had challenged many people to rebut the arguments set out by Theodore Dalrymple in an article in the City Journal in 1997, and no one had done so. I skimmed the article and wasn't impressed by it, so I rather foolishly offered to take up the challenge. Here is the result. (I call it merely a first draft partly because I shall ceratinly be forced to revise it as I receive comments or think more carefully myself, and also because it's a good excuse for the errors and weaknesses which undoubtedly exist.) Comments, constructive criticism and random observations are welcomed. Abuse will be acceepted with equanimity.

Theodore Dalrymple starts off with the rather trite observation that collective ideas about right and wrong are mutable. By rhetorical sleight of hand he implies that this is a bad thing, something any British homosexual, to take the first example which springs to mind, would dispute.

He states without evidence that attempts to regulate the consumption of mind-altering substances are as old as society itself. This may well be true, but it is no more than the observation that in any society there will be people who try to stop other people doing things, either to exercise their own power or to control the supply of something valuable, both of which may well apply to such substances. While it is true that “no society has had to contend with the ready availability of so many different mind-altering drugs”, his claim that the “citizenry” is now uniquely “jealous of its right to pursue its own pleasures in its own way” is almost certainly false.

He then sets out what he claims is the basis of the philosophical argument, “in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others.” This is broadly true. If you can’t do what you want you aren’t free. If you can accept that there are certain limits on your freedom of action, imposed by your own body and the world around you, you have not lost your sense of freedom. If you accept that others may legitimately place certain limits on your actions, you have not lost it, either. But I would question the idea that you must be prepared to take the consequences. Often those consequences are an arbitrary invention of other people, and constitute an unacceptable limitation of freedom. In fact I prefer the words of John Stuart Mill, whom he also quotes, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

This principle, he goes on to say, is almost useless in practice, because any action of ours will have effects on others which society cannot, in practice, make us answer for. This is as true for drug-taking as it is for anything else. He does accept that although the principle is not practical, it is hard to think of a better one. But what he fails to realize is that Mill’s principle is not intended to act as a generator of precise rules in every individual case; it is supposed to provide the normal people, the “citizenry”, with a portable yardstick against which to measure the actions of the powerful. If we can, in large numbers, see clearly that some action of government is wrong by this measure, we have a better chance of keeping them under control.

No one can say how another ‘should’ use his freedom. We are told in the article that the freest man is not the one who slavishly follows his own appetites- which may be true but is a matter for that man to decide upon, not his doctor or his government. We recognise, we are told “the apparent paradox that some limitations to our freedoms have the consequence of making us freer overall.” Do we? I don’t think we do at all, you know. As a premise on which to base an argument of this kind it is extraordinarily weak, if not absolutely false.

He says that commercial displays of public necrophilia are “quite rightly” not permitted. I will take his word for it that such things are illegal in the USA, for whose public the article was written, by you could well ask why. I realize that he uses it as an example of something which harms no one and yet its banning is welcomed by society in general. But all he really does is observe that it is banned, not explain why it should be banned. Presumably, far from being an example of universal agreement among the people of the US that such things must not be tolerated even if they do harm no one (which is true by hypothesis), it is in fact a hangover from the all-embracing Puritanism which affected their rulers in the 19th and early 20th C, which led them to ban and persecute adultery, miscegenation, homosexuality, masturbation and so on. The reason it is still illegal (assuming Dalrymple is right) is that no one has cared enough to campaign against the ban. He says that even if millions of people wanted to do it or were already doing it ‘our’, by which he means his, resolve to prohibit it would not be altered. This is nonsense. Most of the things that people do want to do have been decriminalized.

He says that it is the essential ‘wrongness’ of it which means it cannot be allowed. It just is wrong, you know. “The fact that the prohibition represents a genuine restriction of our freedom is of no account.” It most certainly is to those whose freedom is so restricted. It’s the fact that only a handful of people feel the weight of that restriction that means the rest of us can dismiss it as “of no account.” The whole necrophilia argument is silly. And irrelevant, as we’re talking about something else.

Again he says, “We lose remarkably little by not being permitted to take drugs.” A little expansion on that remark might have helped us to understand why it is so obviously true.

The whole of this section is concerned with showing that it is up to Dalrymple himself, or people like him (and I am ‘people like him’ in most ways) to decide how others should be allowed to use their freedom. How can he presume to know what other people may want, what choices they should make, how they can be happy, or how they must be controlled, better than those people can themselves. The whole tone of the section, and of most of the article, is like this.

“The idea that freedom is merely the ability to act upon one’s whims is surely very thin and hardly begins to capture the complexities of human existence; a man whose appetite is his law strikes us not as liberated but enslaved.” Do I detect a straw man here? I think I do (and it’s not the only one, “No culture that makes publicly sanctioned self-indulgence its highest good can long survive” follows a couple of sentences later). What he says here is perfectly true and completely irrelevant. Surely no one who argues for drug liberalization in the name of freedom holds that idea of freedom. Perhaps more importantly, people in general, you know, the citizenry, as opposed to the clever people who decide what we can and cannot do, do not hold that idea of freedom.

Drugs (let us assume that we are talking about things like alcohol, cocaine, crack, opiate derivatives) can have extremely detrimental effects on the individuals who consume and on the people around them. And yet, most societies discovered how to make alcohol thousands of years ago. Most of those that didn’t discovered how to prepare some kind of hallucinogenic from the plants around the. They were at times reserved for ceremonial purposes, or restricted to the rulers, or not, but those societies did not die out, or suffer irreversible damage and decay, the moment they worked out how to do it, and for a very good reason, which Dalrymple ignores (although his working life was spent largely with people to whom the following remarks do not apply, he must know that they are true).

The great majority of people do not want to spend their lives drunk or drugged. They are perfectly aware that a little alcohol can make them feel good, and they are also aware that a lot will make them feel terrible, will lead them to do stupid or dangerous things, will cause them to experience pain and discomfort the next day, and will seriously limit their ability to earn their living and to attend to their family and social duties. To do all those other things which they enjoy doing, or which allow them to construct a satisfactory life. Most people did not spend their lives drunk and destroy themselves and the very fabric of society even when alcohol was much cheaper and life was a lot tougher. And they don’t now. Is there any indication whatsoever that people, knowing what they do about heroin, would choose to destroy themselves in numbers any larger than they do now, when it’s illegal and expensive? Of course there isn’t, but Dalrymple seems to assume that it’s only the law that keeps the rest of us out of the opium dens.

His entire discussion of the philosophical arguments against legalization of hard drugs is empty. If a philosophical argument can be made in favour of criminalizing the consumption and commercialization of some dangerous substances (not that governments are guided by philosophical arguments) it hasn’t been made.

He gives a good summary of the problems created by the illegality of drugs, especially hard drugs. But he then tries to argue that the illegality of drugs creates criminals in the same way that the illegality of car stealing creates car thieves. Car theft exists because people who cannot or will not buy them want to have them anyway. Car crime exists because it is illegal to act on that desire. Drug crime, that is the theft and violence carried out by junkies to pay for their habit, and by dealers to defend their business, is mostly brought about by the obstacles the law creates.

If I have to spell it out more clearly, car theft is reduced by the existence of the legal artefact of car crime, whereas the violent, undesirable actions of drug users and traders are hugely, enormously increased by the fact that such trade and consumption are decreed to be illegal.

Most of the rest of the article describes aspects of the writer’s personal experience, as a doctor working for long periods with drug addicts, which is very much greater than mine, and I will not attempt to deny that experience nor the conclusions he draws from it. If that is truly his experience of construction workers I’m not surprised he holds the opinions he does. But he gives no evidence to support his contention that Somalis do not succeed in Britain because they spend all day chewing ‘khat’, nor does he explain why he believes that opiates, cocaine, crack and amphetamines are ‘vastly more attractive than khat. Have Somalis taken up these much stronger stimulants, or do they continue to chew khat, because what is culturally acceptable and normal to them is to chew khat and to be mildly affected by it, not to get psychotic on amphetamines every night.

Despite Dalrymple’s observed experience, the average Somali clearly has no wish to spend his life in a state of deranged paranoia, and the average British construction worker has no wish to wake up every morning in a pool of his own excrement.

In Spain, where I live, alcohol has always been much cheaper than in Britain (the taxes are much lower, although they are slowly closing the gap). It is possible to buy enough cheap whisky to get out of your skull on for the sort of money a teenager has in his back pocket. In the wine regions of the north, the standard drunk when people gather at weekends is the cheaper end of the local wine, which again can get you on all fours before you’ve even noticed your wallet lightening. Any normal working person can afford to get extremely drunk several times a week on decent whisky and palatable wine, but it doesn’t happen. Public drunkenness and the behaviour that accompanies it is looked down on here, even by young people, to a far greater extent than in Britain. People control themselves, for social reasons as well as personal and economic ones. And they do the same with drugs. They do it already, and they would continue to do it if they could buy them in the supermarket.

At least of hearing someone shout ‘Godwin’, I will mention the name of Al Capone. Prohibition was a failure, and an economic, social and human disaster. The ‘war on drugs’ has also caused a great deal of misery and waste, on an unquantifiably massive scale. It is surely time to see if there is a better way of assimilating them into society, because they’re not going away.

We then get some more hysterical slippery sloping, some more wild false analogy (true, the war against death, the war against rape, etc, have not been won, and never will be won, but the prosecution of those wars decrease the total of human suffering; it does not, of itself, add greater and wider suffering to that caused by the original problem) and some well-nourished straw men, before we finish off with a vibrant, earsplitting petitio principii.

The article makes no attempt to offer any alternatives, or to recognise that there are drugs and drugs, and a number of imaginative approaches, the creation of a patchwork of laws, and social pressure, based on a primary recognition of and trust in the essence of humanity and the value of freedom, need to be conceived, and considered, before we can say, even in practical terms, that the status quo is the only way.

In short, he doesn’t make an argument at all. He simply tells us his position in a number of different ways. His experience has suggested to him that a very large class of persons lose control of their will in the presence of easily available intoxicants and stimulants, and from this he concludes that such people must be prevented by law from using them. He barely touches on the minimal effectiveness of that law, nor on the dire consequences that it has, indisputably, had for the rest of us.

His discussion of the philosophical arguments shows a lack of understanding of freedom and of logic, and a strong desire to defend at all costs an entrenched initial position.


Sackerson said...

Congratulations on making the effort (I think you're the only one); so many commenters seem hardly to read one's posts before launching themselves - some seem to stop at the title.

I've got to go to work but plan to come back and have a proper look at what you say.

Profile picture - beautiful hedgehog - yours? We adopted one in Cyprus when I was a kid. He grew fat and sassy.

CIngram said...


Hello there. I'm looking forward to your remarks. Meanwhile you have qualified for my QSL card, explained at this link. I'll send it by email.

Yes, the hedgehog is mine. It's an African breed, rather smaller than the European ones, and they make better pets. He's runs around all night and still thinks we might bite him so he's not fat or sassy, but he's great fun to have around, and he does a good line in self-conscious martyrdom whenever you pick him up. And he keeps the house clean of ants, spiders, beetles and anything else that has more legs than he has.

Sackerson said...

Hi CI:

I've tried to put in a comment or two at last, very mentally tired at the moment but recovering from a cold. I don't suppose it'll ever be nyah nyah proved you wrong and in any case that sort of approach never wins converts.

On the philosophy of freedom we could easily write a long book together I'm sure. Writing a good short one would be far harder.

I've copied your piece and added a few interjections, for what they're worth, but it's all too long for Blogger comment it seems - want to give us your email or do I post up at Bearwatch?.

What's this QSL card?

CIngram said...


Hi, thanks for getting back. I was beginning to think my arguments were unanswerable ;-)

I think there are two important areas covered by the Dalrymple article and it’s necessary to keep them separate if the discussion is going to get anywhere. One is the effect of different levels of prohibition on society in general, which is, up to a point, testable, or at least researchable by looking at places and times where things were different. This would need to include a clear categorization of ‘drugs’ in terms of their effects and the motivation for taking them, since what we want to achieve by legislation must surely vary depending on these things. That seems to me to be the major failing of the practical part of the article. Also the human cost to consumers and non-consumers needs to be qualified, as in how much does it matter, and what moral duty do the rest of us have towards addicts.

The other area is what you call the philosophy of freedom. It’s a subject on which I, personally, could ramble on interminably. With other people involved in the discussion I would have to be more focused and think more deeply, which would be better for me (it’s easy to be right when you’re talking to yourself) and might produce something of interest to others as well. I hope it does. I certainly look forward to talking about it.

My email is in my blogger profile but if you want to put it up at your place that’s fine by me and we’ll carry on there.

The QSL card is a little piece of whimsy I do because it reminds me of my days listening to shortwave radio, and because I thought it might even catch on. It appears it hasn’t, which must make me even more whimsical than I thought. The idea is explained in this post and the story of QSL cards is here. I send one to first time commenters as though comments were a kind of reception report. I couldn’t find an email address at your site so I sent it via OOL. Perhaps it never got passed on.