Drug Legalization: A Defense of the Conservative Position

“Surgeon General’s Warning: Attention Pregnant Mothers, Smoking Crack Can Be Hazardous to Your Baby’s Health.”

I once saw this mock warning label in a political cartoon attacking the idea of legalizing drugs. It was a wonderfully cutting illustration of what drug legalization would actually look like—flesh on a noxious concept cooked up amid gatherings of libertarians.

Practically speaking, the argument for legalizing drugs is flawed on so many levels that a full accounting here is impossible. My experience is that drug legalization is generally favored either by people who do an excessive amount of drugs or those who have never touched the stuff, the latter of whom are clueless as to why a syringe of heroin is completely different from a glass of Merlot.

Drug legalization is supported by libertarians convinced that there is no higher principle—note the word “principle,” not “virtue”—than 100 percent consistency on the issue of “freedom,” and who have concluded that a “free society” should have virtually no limits on freedom, save to protect life, liberty, and property.

The central error in libertarian thinking is the failure to distinguish between freedom and vice. Freedom is not about an individual’s right to engage in anything, no matter how destructive to the individual or larger society.

This brings me to a defense of the conservative position against drug legalization. Libertarians like to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy because conservatives incessantly invoke freedom but apply it selectively. Quite the contrary, they misunderstand conservatism.

One of the best definitions of conservatism comes from political scientists Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey Berry, and Jerry Goldman. Conservatives, write the three professors, value freedom more than equality but would restrict freedom in order to preserve social order. Libertarians, they note, likewise value freedom more than equality, but value freedom over social order.

These definitions nicely explain where the two sides stand on drug legalization. Conservatives believe it would be bad for social order to legalize drugs. They do not want a culture where Johnny or Suzie, once they turn 18, can drive to the local smoke shop and casually light up a little reefer, or perhaps drop a couple hits of laboratory-approved LSD before catching a movie. Mom and dad might tell the teens that this is a lousy choice, but who are they to say? After all, the government says it is legal.

Conservatives do not like what this would do to society, from the moral repercussions to healthcare costs.

There are, however, much deeper roots to the conservative objection:

The conservative philosophy is grounded in and guided by eternal truths; it does not separate itself from God. It moves toward God, and it understands freedom in the way God intended freedom to be exercised.

A Biblical verse that explains this is Paul’s Galatians 5:13-14: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Note the caveat, the “but” that follows, “For you were called for freedom, brothers.” This is not a hedonistic or uncontrolled freedom.

The gamut of vices that libertarians want to legalize, from drugs to prostitution, means wrongly exploiting “freedom” as opportunities for the flesh. And doing so, even if the proponent of these freedoms does not imbibe in them, certainly does not serve Christ’s ultimate mandate that we serve our neighbor in a loving way.

Conservatives believe that responsible freedom is a guide to successful living in a successful society. Fallen humanity ought to strive for the holiness of Augustine’s City of God, not the selfish, fleshly indulgence of the City of Man. The first flawed interpretation of freedom took place in the Garden of Eden. The mistake has been repeated enough already.

William F. Buckley Jr. alluded to this understanding when he declared, “I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” Nor, one might add, to political truths toasted up at the bong bar of the local Hash House.

Our political ancestors understood. George Washington, the father of this country, stated that self-governance by the individual is essential to self-governance by a democracy. This proper understanding of liberty is embedded in the fabric of this nation. Our earliest politicians, literally all the way to the current president, spoke of God as “Author of liberty.” Listen to the words of one of our most cherished hymns: “Our father’s God to Thee, Author of liberty, To thee we sing / Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King.”

If you want to remove this from the marrow of this nation, then make your case and try to convince enough others to join you, but understand that you would be supplanting, not affirming or enhancing, the American republic as it was founded.

Conservatism and libertarianism are not simple policy disagreements but fundamentally divergent philosophies on the nature of freedom, religion, and the republic itself. Genuine American freedom is not license. A nation hurts rather than helps itself by legalizing its vices—drugs included.