The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth

There are two main arguments, one philosophical and the other practical, for the legalization of drugs whose consumption is currently prohibited. I will take up the former here, and the latter in a separate post.

The philosophical case for drug legalization derives from the famous passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) that is probably (in the modern world) the most influential in all political philosophy. Mill said, to paraphrase, that the individual is sovereign over himself, therefore no one and no authority has the right to tell him what to do in those matters that concern only, or even mainly, himself.

I can do as I please, and take what I like, so long as I harm no others.

One can easily sympathize with this attempt to delimit the relations between the individual and the state or other powerful authorities. Every government today is in practice vastly more oppressive than that of George III in the American colonies. Which of us does not feel an increasing weight on him of regulation, prohibition, and compulsion from on high—most of it nowadays supposedly for our own good—to help us lead a better or a longer life whether we want it or not? How are we to hold back the flood of official intrusion into our lives without a principle to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate intrusion?

This assumes that politics is, and cannot be otherwise than, the application to any given situation of basic indisputable axioms, as if it were a species of Euclidean geometry. I have seen the same impulse—what one might call the desire for philosophical neatness—in medical ethics. Thus the principle of patient autonomy forces the patient to choose between alternatives when all he wants is to be told by authority what to do, which after all is why he has come to the doctor in the first place. Not everyone sees, or wants to see, the whole of life as a vastly extended supermarket in which everything, from the most serious to the most trivial, is compulsorily a matter of personal choice. Choice is important but not all-important, as anyone will attest who has ever gone without some unimportant part of it.

There are times when lack of choice can even come as a relief. To insist that a person choose when he does not want to do so (because choice is painful for him) is a kind of sadism.

Moreover, the mere desire for a simple principle (and Mill prided himself that his principle was simple, even very simple) that can act as an ethical litmus paper to distinguish between the permitted and the impermissible does not mean there actually is one. Our wish that something might exist does not bring it into existence. It may be that the world is irredeemably messy, not only physically but ethically.

The objections to the Millian premise of the call to drug legalization are well-known. Man is a social as well as a political animal, and except for the very few who live in genuine isolation, almost all that we do affects someone else. Of course, the degree to which one’s actions affect others varies; but the fact that the degree is a continuum rather than categorical means the authority to interfere, prohibit, or control is a matter of judgment. That authority cannot be exercised or not according to a simple principle. The fact that we sometimes think it right, and sometimes not, to interfere in a man’s actions does not mean that we have, or must have, a clear abstract line of demarcation in our minds.

We may, indeed we ought to, have a bias or presumption in favor of individual liberty, and we should also have a lively appreciation of the fact that interference with liberty to prevent harm to others may actually cause more harm than it prevents. Moreover, because liberty is a good in itself, loss of liberty is a harm in itself, always to be taken into account.

None of this means that there is a very clear principle that can lay down in advance the limits of liberty, such as Mill wants (and the would-be legalizers of drugs rely upon).

Not even the most libertarian of the libertarians thinks there should be absolutely no limits to the consumption of mind-altering substances. For example, we do not think children of four should take cocaine even if they want to. Parents who allowed them to indulge their desire would be rightly deprived of their parental control. (Let no one imagine, however, that there is anything so foolish that no one would do it; I have known parents who, believing that carrots were health-giving, fed their children exclusively on carrot juice.) The age at which an individual becomes able to decide for himself is precise in law but (to an extent) arbitrary in justification. There is no precise moment at which a child becomes an adult in fact. In England, you can join the army and have consensual sex at 16, drive a car and drink in a pub at 17, vote, buy cigarettes, and marry without parental consent at 18.

Trying to make the law conform to “natural” boundaries without any arbitrariness whatsoever is what Mill and the legalizers—sounds like a bad 1960s band, John Stuart Mill and the Legalizers—try to do. But nature is not organized for the law’s convenience.

We accept that in many circumstances, perhaps for the majority of most people’s lives in the modern world, people have no right to intoxicate themselves in any way they want. We cannot drive while drunk, and most would say that this prohibition was reasonable even if the great majority of drunk drivers reach their destination without having harmed anyone else. We do not wait for them actually to crash and kill before counting them guilty.

And what applies to driving applies to many other situations. An employee could not say he was wrongfully dismissed merely because there was no law against him being drunk at his place of work. Mothers who are incapably drunk in the charge of their children may have their children removed from their care. We do not expect our teachers, doctors, pilots, judges, or myriad others to be drunk, or even merely hung over, while they work, or intoxicated by some drug other than alcohol. We do not wait for a drunken surgeon to botch an operation before prohibiting him from operating.

It is true that some of the prohibitions are more a matter of tradition or mores, rather than legal codification, but the law offers no protection to those who break them. There is no right to be an employee and to drink: one has to choose between the two. And if one consistently chooses drink, one sooner or later imposes costs, often great costs, on others. Anyone who has dealt with alcoholics knows that it is not they alone who suffer from their habit.

The libertarian position with regard to drugs would be more convincing if the costs of the choices of those who took them could be brought home to them alone. We know that, in practice, they are shared. We (or at least I) should not care to live in a society in which, say, an unconscious heroin addict found in the street were left to die unless it could be proved before treatment that he could pay for it, or alternatively that he could be put to forced labor afterwards to repay what he owed for his treatment. (Incidentally, Mill, in one of the less popular parts of On Liberty, says that a father who refused to support his children when he was capable of doing so could rightfully be put to forced labor.) A society in which costs were so rigorously apportioned would be both intolerant and a bureaucratic nightmare.

A legalizer might, with reason, point out that society is content to share the costs, either through public or private insurance, of the pleasurable activities of some of its members. What about those who participate in sport, the largest single cause of physical injury in Western society? But society bears that cost because, rightly or wrongly, it approves, or at any rate does not disapprove, of sport. It has not, by bearing that cost, agreed to share the costs of any activity whatsoever by any of its members.

It agrees to share costs by grace and favor, as a matter of discretion, and not according to any fundamental philosophical axiom.

In short, there is no “very simple principle” of the kind that Mill enunciated, with an eloquence that disguised a certain hollowness, that establishes as inherently wrong the forbidding of citizens to take whatever drugs they like. By the same token, there is no very simple principle that will determine which drugs should be permitted and which banned.

If it is right to begin permitting the consumption of a heretofore banned drug, it must, therefore, be on other grounds than that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.” As Einstein said, a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler than possible.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

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  1. says

    The usual Einstein quote is, “A theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Taken from Occam’s Razor: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum. “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Or in modern terms, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

    He is also reported to have said, “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, obvious, and wrong.”

  2. Devin Watkins says

    A child of 4 years old isn’t capable of caring for themselves and making rational choices with an understanding of the consequences. But why shouldn’t all adults (of sound mind), be able to decide for themselves whether to consume a drug? Currently even if the FDA has found the drug safe for human consumption, you are not allowed to consume it until the FDA determines that it is “effective” as well as safe. And so people are dying today, because they are prohibited from consuming safe drugs that have a chance of saving their life. People should be able to decide for themselves how effective it is.

    Driving while drunk has two additional things added. (1) There is a significantly increased risk of harm to others. (2) You don’t own the road, and so some reasonable rules of use for safety are appropriate. However, a person consuming a drug while locked into a room on their own property cannot physically harm anyone else. Any driving while intoxicated (from whatever substance) could still be made illegal even if purchasing and then consuming the substance in your own house was totally legal.

    An employer is free to dismiss the person if they wish, with or without the drug being legal. They own their own business and they get to decide what to do with it. This applies to all the jobs that you mentioned (teachers, doctors, pilots, judges). I don’t see what that has to do with if the drug should be legal or not.

    Any parent, for whatever reason, who is unable to care for their child will be removed from that household. Again this has nothing to do with if a drug should be legal or not.

    If an unconscious heroin addict is found in the street, why shouldn’t they be forced to go through rehab until they are clean? (Combined with a debt for the cost, which would be far less then the massive cost of incarceration) Just consuming drugs should not be illegal, but that doesn’t mean that anything they do while on drugs is legal. If they consume it without harming others, then the state should step in and there should be consequences.

    As to Einstein, he is a person who valued “spirit of personal liberty and regard for the

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    It may well be that there is a parallel world of thought to that of JS Mill about the human condition considered as liberty, which is probably regarded by most as comprised of individual rights and “freedoms.”

    If we wish to examine whether there is a “simple truth” (and whether simple or truth), we might observe that Jacobi injunction to “invert.” That is, consider instead, the existence of individual obligations, their recognition, acceptance and modes of performance or avoidance.

    It is possible to conceive that the “sense” of obligations (even if atavistic) are as strong a determination of human conduct as any “sense” of “freedom.” Is this not what makes choice “painful” at times?

    To tread through those multifold examples given by the doctor using a lamp of obligations in place of the torch of self gratifications, would we come closer to some simpler truths; that is, conjectures more difficult to refute?

  4. Josh House says

    You can’t take the harm principle out of its original context, that of English common law. The law has developed various ways to define “harm” and who has the “capacity” to make their own decisions. It’s complicated and messy.

    But Mill and other classical liberals largely assumed the legal definitions of the day. His higher principle was simple, but I’ve no doubt that, as a civil servant, he thought that its application would get messy.

  5. kldimond says

    Not really being familiar with your work, Theodore, perhaps I’m inclined to ‘too-simple’ of a conclusion. My first question is why Liberty Law Site would put this work forward.

    The obvious deficit against which you rail is a straw man among libertarians of any evolved status: accountability. In other words, any libertarian worth his or her salt will see accountability as part of the equation in freedom. Yes, free to do and consume and be stupid, but with accountability for impacts that harm the alive status, the freedom to move, or the person and rightful property of another.

    Seen in the light of accountability, your whole diatribe falls apart. Children, by definition, are not capable of accountability. Common Law’s majority at 16 or US law’s majority at 18–they say, “Ok, kiddo. It’s on you now. The parents have done their duty.” Until that time, accountability rests with the parents. This is why parents must be fundamentally free to raise the kid as they see fit. Limits? Yes, of course. Accountabilities.

    Coercion of another independent adult is an assault. The outlawing of drugs is an assault on some people, especially given the assaults used in interdiction, arrest and imprisonment. Those must be justified as much as any other assault. I submit that the case for them is unmade daily as the effects only make our society more, not less, dangerous and more hostile.

    I don’t want to use drugs, nor to be around drug users. I think drug use is a horrendous problem. I think the support of AMA medicine for many drugs is corrupt beyond belief, especially in light of the “drug war,” which is nothing more than a turf battle between Rockefeller-backed crooks at AMA cum FDA and everyone else.


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