Ethics Quote of the Week: Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson

“In determining who is a “major” candidate for president, let’s begin here. Those who support the legalization of heroin while mocking addicts are marginal. It is difficult to be a first-tier candidate while holding second-rate values.”

—-Washington Post columnist and former Bush advisor Michael Gerson, pronouncing presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul’s Libertarian endorsement of drug legalization ethically unacceptable.

Gerson’s deconstruction of the all-too-common and increasingly ominous calls for legalizing addictive drugs nicely captures the trio of ethical flaws of the advocacy: it denies the crucial and legitimate government role defining responsible conduct for society, it embraces the myth that recreational drug use “does no harm,” and it is arrogant and selfish, condemning the poor and reckless to problems that their fragile resources cope with, in order to bestow a dubious “freedom” that the drug advocates do not need.

On the latter two points, Gerson begins by explaining why the Paul’s libertarian mantra, “Do what you will — pray or inject or turn a trick — as long as no one else gets hurt,” is an ideal divorced from reality:

“The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods — say, in Washington, D.C. — has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their “personal habits.”

And, he may have added, everyone else has to pay for it…in the need for social services and medical care, in reduced productivity, in increased crime and unsocialized children. Gerson continues,

“But Paul had an answer to this criticism. ‘How many people here would use heroin if it were legal? I bet nobody would,’ he said to applause and laughter. Paul was claiming that good people — people like the Republicans in the room — would not abuse their freedom, unlike those others who don’t deserve our sympathy…This is not “The Wealth of Nations” or the “Second Treatise of Government.” It is Social Darwinism. It is the arrogance of the strong. It is contempt for the vulnerable and suffering.”

Paul is not alone in this. His sentiment is allied with the drug advocacy of people like Bill Maher and the aging hippies who run NORML. They can handle the responsible use of drugs, and if they can’t they’ll take care of themselves. And those who can’t…the poor, the young, the weak, the ill? The answer is either “Too bad for them, the morons” (Paul) or “It’s okay, the government will take care of them.” (You know.)

As to the key role of government in setting societal standards of conduct, Gerson writes…

“The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.”

This paragraph is even more persuasive if one reads blogger Bill Egnor’s desperate efforts to rebut it over at the popular far-left site Firedoglake, where he displays a near total aversion to the concept of ethics in his critique.

He begins by arguing against drug laws on the basis of one purely non-ethical argument (it’s expensive—though not as costly, I believe, as having as many drug addicts as we have alcoholics, the horrible result of our major legal addictive drug) and one dubious one (he says anti-drug laws “don’t work,” by which he really only means that they haven’t ended the drug-abuse problem. They definitely have kept it from becoming worse, and I can vouch for they fact that they “work”—because, like millions of other law-abiding Americans, the fact that something is illegal is enough to convince me not to do it. You? ). Then Egnor accuses Gerson of “moralizing,” which is the calling card of ethical relativists who are offended at any attempt to delineate right and wrong. (Abusing drugs, by the way, is wrong.)

Next he tries an absurd accusation of hypocrisy. Egnor writes that Gerson ignores “the total cognitive dissonance between the idea that the government should be limited and that one of its most important roles is reinforcing social norms and expectations.” There is no cognitive dissonance or inconsistency. Government’s role in reinforcing social and behavioral norms is a basic, core and natural function of both governing bodies and leadership generally.

“If [government] is limited then you have to trust your citizens to do the right thing on their own,” Egnor says. This is an ignorant and self-contradictory statement: by definition, government’s very existence is based on an acknowledgment that societies can’t trust all of their citizens “to do the right thing on their own.” They need laws. They need enforcement. They need guidance, and they need role models. Using government and the authority of official policy is not expanding the scope of government,  because it is the essence of government.

Not that Egnor, who later states that the purpose of laws is to “balance the disparity in power of wealth and position,” would understand that.  Having shown a disdain for what this website is about—making culture-wide distinctions between right and wrong, he then invokes the slippery slope, irrelevantly suggesting that conceding government a legitimate role in defining social norms will lead to “investigating every miscarriage” and banning oral sex “except on birthdays.”  Perhaps sensing that his argument is idiotic, the blogger then plays the race card, as too many progressives who are losing an argument like to do:

“Which brings me to the ‘decent, orderly neighborhoods’ part…does anyone else feel like that is a dog whistle with an English into English translation to ‘neighborhoods like white people have’?


No, Gerson’s reasoning isn’t racist; it is, unlike that of Ron Paul and Firedoglake, classically ethical and socially responsible.

8 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson

  1. The problem with prohibition isn’t that drug use comes completely risk free, or that people have unlimited freedoms to engage in any activity they please, it’s that the criminal consequences of illegal drug use are the greatest harm caused by drug use. People have been using substances to alter their consciousnesses for thousands of years, and they’re not about to stop trying it now. There’s no fundamental reason you or I should be able to sip a glass of wine with a fine cigar, while some poor slob gets hard time for a rock of cocaine. Who knows how many countless well-heeled homes have been torn apart by perfectly legal Merlot and prescription pills – besides the fact that more concentrated, less pure, forms of drugs, that are more likely to contain adulterants, are a direct result of their illegality, which places are premium on a high dollar-to-weight ratio, and places drug consumers outside the protection of the law. Several layers of government agencies protect consumers of spirits, coffee, and tobacco – all addictive substances that can have harmful consequences when abused – from fraud and violence by drug suppliers. If Starbucks serves me coffee laced with cleanser, that makes me sick, I can use the courts to get compensation. Users of illegal substances have no such protections, and when not being poisoned by impure or misrepresented substances, are vulnerable to fraud, theft or violence from suppliers. During the Prohibition of the Eighteenth Amendment, this gap in civil authority meant that criminals had free reign over entire segments of the economy, the greatest profits going to the most violent. People with money and access to the right connections attended private parties where the Canadian whiskey flowed freely, while working people drank themselves blind on industrial alcohol, poisoned by the government, then inadequately “re-natured” by mob-employed chemists. And what is happening today? The entire nation of Mexico may be at the edge of falling to violent narco-terrorists, who started out as well-armed soldiers in the War on Drugs, but found the drug trade, with its Prohibition-inflated prices, much more lucrative. And yet everyone knows, the people with the best drugs are doctors, lawyers, and cops. People with money and power are able to demand quality, and choose their deals, while destitute folks in D.C., looking for an escape from an oppressive reality, addle their brains on battery acid and drain cleaner. When a law produces such uneven effects, so blatantly skewed to favor those with wealth and power, while continually crushing the poor and unconnected, isn’t it a bit unethical to allow the legal system to punish people for being sick? Because drug addiction is, after all a sickness, or more accurately, a symptom of sickness. Many people use drugs to feel better, to relax, or have fun, but they work and take care of their families. Drug addicts use drugs just to feel normal. Paranoid schizophrenics often lose their jobs, abandon their children, and alienate people with their behavior – much like what a drug addict might do. Would you advocate putting paranoid schizophrenics in jail? Well, actually, that’s what we do in this country – jails are dumping grounds for the mentally ill, among them the drug addicted. Is punishing sick people the ethical thing to do? Is preventing them from having access to legal protection the ethical thing to do? Is it more ethical to spend money on militarizing the police, and imprisoning a huge proportion of our population (in comparison to other civilized countries), than to develop ways of reducing the harm caused by drug abuse, including giving people more options, like job prospects, than putting themselves into a stupor?

    Would you have us criminalize other addictive, harmful activities too? How about people who waste all their money on Home Shopping Club? Or people who watch too much TV and get fat and tune out their spouses and children? Put ’em in jail, right? Junk food addicts? Burn off the fat on the work farm, right? What is the ethical justification for doing violence to someone whose only crime is wanting to feel better? If someone commits robbery to support a habit, harms their children, or causes mayhem while high, aren’t those things already crimes? How many parents abuse their children with religious justifications? Should we ban religion for that reason, even though many more parents use religion constructively?

    And your argument, “because, like millions of other law-abiding Americans, the fact that something is illegal is enough to convince me not to do it.” is weird – in another age, would you have refused to aid slaves avoid capture under the Fugitive Act? No, that’s not a “race card” – but do you understand that illegal does not equal immoral or even unethical? It just means there’s a set of words somewhere that someone can use as justification for beating you up and taking your stuff.

    • I’m going to have to address this in smaller bites—gee we’ve been getting some extensive comment lately!—but hear’s my start, from your second paragraph. The idea that obeying the law isn’t an ethical imperative is what’s weird. One has a social contract with society, and that creates a duty to obey all laws, until, in a democracy, one works to change them, including using civil disobedience. the argument that one is free to disobey laws one just doesn’t like is entirely unethical, as it is 1) disrespectful of society 2) unfair, since others are expected to follow the laws, and 3) dishonest, as one is presumed to be law abiding. Citing unjust laws. like the Fugitive Slave Act, is using an exception to the rule AS the rule. The act is infamous precisely because it was an aberration…don’t equate anti-drug laws, or any laws, with those. A citizen has an ethical obligation to obey the law. That is fact. You need to understand THAT.

      More later—I just had a computer crash.

      • In general, I agree with your statement that a citizen has an ethical obligation to obey the law (in general because, for example, people who hid Jews from the Nazis were, after all, breaking the law). But. The hard fact is that lots of people are breaking the drug laws and those laws aren’t helping, they’re making the problem worse. Chris makes a good case, and I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, but did want to add that I question any law that purports to help someone by making a criminal out of them. That having been said, I look forward to your rebuttal(s).

  2. Dear Jack: I couldn’t agree more with your essay. In fact (if you’ll allow my saying so!) I think it falls in line with a lot of the opinions I’ve been expressing here over the last week. I shared this on my Facebook page, BTW. It should be widely read. Some of my more libertarian associates aren’t going to like it, though!

  3. If I appear strident below, my apologies, it is simply because I think this country is suffering gravely because of a focus on red herrings and because of ongoing, flawed policies which are promoted for cultural reasons, but exist for very real structural and economic reasons.

    The poor will always lead nasty, brutish lives. It is in part structural, it is in part cultural. We can approach this problem two ways. Either let them suffer the results of their poor choices, or, if we decide to regulate their behavior then let’s not just stop with drugs. We’ve been here before, and the logical conclusion of full dominance of the poor’s acitivites in some cases led to calls for sterilization. I think many decent people would agree the last was monstrous, but, on further thought, very logical from a paternalistic, authoritarian view point.

    I balk at the tyranny of the lowest common denominator. This thinking has resulted in the giant, pseudo-Lancastrian boondoggle that is “no child left behind” among other issues.

    At what point, however, does collective responsibility stop? The poor have a tendency to feed their children on unhealthy fast food or generally processed food leading to hypertension and diabetes later in life. Shall we shut down McDonalds and prevent the various “Dollar” stores from selling foods like ramen noodles? And shall we end the sugar and corn subsidies that are contributing factor to cheap, unhealthy food in the US and poverty for farmers abroad?

    I dare say that if we would look at the cumulative effect of poor diet we’d find it far more destructive than marijuana. Should we promote government subsidies for the working poor to feed their children in a more healthy way and punish parents who allow their children to become obese or who feed their children in a lackadaisical way? I suspect that many of the advocates of ongoing drug criminalization would call said government subsidies “socialism.”

    This isn’t a straw man argument, we’ve already seen the hysterical reaction to Michelle Obama’s attempts to address childhood obesity and the ongoing campaign against “socialism” in all its real or pretended forms. Gerson, as a member of the Bush administration, shares some guilt here in championing the very poor here and abroad, while ignoring the real plight of the working poor.

    Considering the protective hysteria surrounding children in this country these days, I say childhood obesity and poor diet is the 800 pound potentially diabetic gorilla in the room, affecting more children than all the drugs and pedophiles in the world. Ron Paul, to his credit, was already talking in the 1980s about the discrepancy between tacit acceptance of obesity in America and the flawed, paternalistic argument of prohibition.

    While I am a libertarian and believe in small government, I’d rather fund government clinics and lunchrooms for the poor than the military industrial, paternalistic prison/military complex. It would be far cheaper and have better results. I guess that might make me a socialist.

    Judging from your complaint in another post about cigarette labels, I’d also add that you seem to be of two minds on this blog, you want us to respect the freedom and dignity of cigarette smokers, who do pose a health risk to us and their children (another form of unpunished, un remarked upon abuse) via second hand smoke, but not extend the same to consideration to marijuana users.

    • If you think that (speaking of your last paragraph), then you need to read what I have written more carefully.

      The government cannot have it both ways. If it says a product is legal and therefore approves of it for adult use, it has no business harassing citizens who avail themselves of a legal option. Tobacco and alcohol, both addictive, harmful drugs that do infinitely nore damage to society than good, are locked into our culture by a combination of habit, tradition, politics and commerce. That’s too bad, but it’s true. That does not mean that it is sensible, responsible or ethical to let other damaging, addictive drugs into society too. That’s the position here and it has always been the position here. There is nothing inconsistent about it. Government has to send clear messages—that’s part of its job. If the government, which has a duty to protect us and society, pronounces a product or conduct safe and appropriate by legalizing it, then it is a mixed message to simultaneously interfere withe the free use of it. If it were possible, tobacco and alcoholic beverages should be made illegal. It’s not possible. We’re stuck with them. Educate and warn, but harassment, which is what the new ads are, is unfair and an abuse of government power.

      • You can’t educate and warn against a substance, but also call the same substance safe or appropriate and claim to be acting in a clear manner. The only thing clear is that the government has decided that marijuana isn’t to be consumed. Your argument would be defensible if you left the statement at that. The justifications put forward by the government for denial of marijuana consumption by allowance of other harmful substances are weak, arbitrary, and anything but clear.

        • I’m not sure what your last sentence means, but if it means that the government is obligated to legalize more dangerous substances because it couldn’t get around legalizing tobacco and alcohol, that’s an illogical, if popular argument.

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