As a Republican “in the wilderness,” I listened with new ears to the most recent Intelligence Squared debate considering the motion to legalize drugs. My views having transitioned from Against to Undecided, I expected the proponents’ arguments on this occasion might hit their mark. To my surprise, they did not. To the combatants in this particular culture war, I submit this dispatch from the fence.
First, if your audience is willing to consider abandoning its position for yours, it likely will do so only on the narrowest grounds available and, when put to a choice of alternatives, it will always change its opinion on “lower” things before it will change its opinions on “higher” things. In my case, I consider it a significant shift of position toward the pro-legalization side to have shed my presumption in favor of criminalization. The effective advocate will realize I would have gotten there by changing my mind about one of two things: the relationship between drugs and people, or the relationship between drugs and the state. Is it more plausible that I’ve formed new opinions about the conduct of shooting heroin and smoking crack? Or that I’ve formed new opinions about whether and how the state should insert itself into that conduct?
The latter, it should be clear. Why? Because it is the narrower ground on which I can change my position, which presents the least amount of disturbance to my other preexisting beliefs and values. Here, the former option would require me to change my opinion on a moral question about the rightness or wrongness of doing drugs. While my opinions on the limits of government are also strong, moral questions take priority. Thus, while I still would not be willing to grant drug use the status of a “right,” I may be (and perhaps already am) persuaded that many of our laws that intervene in this conduct are a bad idea. The advocate who declines this opportunity of persuasion to instead insist upon a “right” to do all manner of drugs–that is, to insist I abandon my higher moral principle in favor of his–will necessarily fail to win converts who otherwise might be ready to join him.
Second, the judicious advocate seeks consensus, not domination. Characterizing laws against drugs as “racist” tends to inflame rather than illuminate. In my case, this claim, made by the pro-legalization advocates in the Intelligence Squared debate, actually tended to reverse my cognitive trajectory toward decriminalization. I am not likely to continue a journey to a point of view that calls me a racist for previously holding a different view; better to hold the line and push back against the interlocutor who has, by striking at my character rather than my reason, made me his enemy.
Abraham Lincoln, who has a movie out I understand, offered similar advice in his Temperance Address that applies just as well to legalization advocates as it did to teetotalers in the 1840s:
Too much denunciation against dram sellers and dram drinkers was indulged in. This, I think, was both impolitic and unjust. It was impolitic, because, it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all, where such driving is to be submitted to, at the expense of pecuniary interest, or burning appetite. When the dram-seller and drinker, were incessantly told, not in accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation, with which the lordly Judge often groups together all the crimes of the felon’s life, and thrusts them in his face just ere he passes sentence of death upon him, that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infested the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences — I say, when they were told all this, and in this way, it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations, and to join the ranks of their denouncers in a hue and cry against themselves.
To have expected them to do otherwise than they did — to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree, and never can be reversed. When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest.
In this spirit, legalization advocates might appeal more successfully to conservatives by first acknowledging the destructive force that drugs play in the lives of too many Americans, particularly those who are poor and lower-middle class, in contrast to the relatively wealthy and well-educated represented in the pro-legalization camp. (It is this demographic divide that accounts for a great deal of the intellectual divide on the issue, I submit, given the stark difference that drugs play in the lives of educated trendy urbanites compared with a less educated lower middle class who are more dependent on family and thus more likely to suffer community effects of drug abuse.) Also effective would be an acknowledgement of the noble purposes intended by opposing drug use, and to stop assuming base racial motives.
From there, the effective advocate ought to have won enough trust that his practical arguments will begin to hit their mark: that there are more productive and efficient ways to prevent and cure the destruction drugs cause; that incarceration for drug use is tantamount to sending nonviolent drug users to “finishing school for criminals”; that one of the most powerful public sector unions, the prison guards, is rabidly in favor of the drug war because of the effect it has on swelling their own ranks and increasing their influence on public policy. Moreover, there is no need for the sticker shock associated with the idea of legalizing all drugs. There is an obvious middle ground short of creating a “right” to do all manner of drugs, such as repealing minimum sentences, replacing incarceration with rehabilitation, legalizing marijuana only, leaving these matters to the states and possibly even to municipalities, etc.
Republicans might be in a good position to get to a more sensible policy on drugs. Perhaps even a better position than Democrats, given that Republicans are more comfortable drawing moral distinctions about certain behavior: Republicans can support laws that make certain drugs unlawful or tightly regulated and still oppose overweening “nanny laws.” It might not satisfy libertarians, but surely they’d appreciate some momentum toward reform.
But so long as the motion is whether to grant unfettered legalization based on a supposed moral right to do drugs, I don’t see how anyone other than doctrinaire libertarians can support it. We need a consensus that includes more than doctrinaire libertarians, and consensus will never be formed so long as the issue is framed in this way.