The ability to exercise our will freely is one of the things that makes us human. We consider animals to be enslaved by their instincts and passions, we recognise that the oppressed victims of tyrants and dictators are treated by them as less than human, we similarly recognise that actual slaves have been deprived of their humanity by being traded and forced to live at the whim of a master. We ourselves want to do what we want to do, and resist external attempts to restrain us.
Since it is not an easy matter to set out explicitly, at least not in a way that will be accepted by those who dislike and distrust other people’s, and possibly their own freedom, why it is important to those who do value it, and why they defend it so assiduously, another approach is to take the fight to them. Have them defend their supposed right or entitlement to deprive others of freedom.
In other words: Who are you to tell me what to do? This is a perfectly reasonable question, after all. If someone is to presume to dictate what I can and cannot do, I want to know why. That someone else might harm society by doing what I am doing is not necessarily sufficient. It needs to be shown that I will harm society by doing what I am doing, or might want to do.
A society is perfectly entitled to defend itself from threats and harm (and it is on precisely that principle that I believe in capital punishment, in the right circumstances), but a component of that society has the perfect right, which perhaps someone from outside it does not, to challenge the process chosen, whoever makes it and with whatever authority.
Societies of all kinds tend to choose repression as the easiest way to contain internal threats. All behaviours which might cause problems, whatever constitutes a problem in the minds of those who exercise power, even just mentally, is first met with prohibition. It really is the easiest way, and it is natural to us to forbid, or to call for others to forbid, any kind of behaviour or practice which we do not understand or which we find threatening. There will be those who will be sure to present it to us as threatening, for reasons of their own. Money, vindictiveness, ignorance, fear are often motives for adding a voice to the call to forbid and control. It doesn’t make them right.
Something which is genuinely harmful to a society can, then, be legitimately suppressed by it. And so once again the question, the specific question we started with, is, does the freedom to take intoxicating or noxious substances cause sensible harm to other members of society, or to society as a whole? The answer here is almost certainly yes, it does, in some cases and to some degree. Does this permit the repression of the freedom of society as a whole in a large area of actions? No, it doesn’t. It requires society, or those who act in its name, to identify whose freedom it needs to curtail, and in precisely what areas.
What, then, is the cost of suppressing it? Very high indeed, in some cases. The cost to the individual may be high purely in personal terms, in that he places great value on his freedom to perform that particular act, or in economic terms, in that his livelihood depends on his being able to do things in a certain way, or being free to choose how to do them. These consequences are very rarely taken serious by governments, who only think in very broad terms.
The more I think about this, the less I understand the argument that the government, which means no more than those who have gained power, can arbitrarily restrict the freedom of the governed. Society, when it is genuinely acting as a whole and for its own good, is very limited in what it can legitimately do in this regard. A government, however apparently benign and however chosen, is above and outside the society formed by the rest of us, and acts only to benefit itself. It should not be permitted to control us on general principles, unexamined by the broad base of those affected by its decrees.