Why the drugs debate requires more humility

Jamie Whyte
THE former head of MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, last week called on the government to decriminalise cannabis. She thinks the “war on drugs” is not working. Like most who make this claim, she counts undiminished drug consumption as one of the policy’s failures. Liberalisers seem to agree with prohibitionists that drugs are bad for their users, so that reduced consumption would be welcome.

This is the basic error in the drugs debate. Drugs are in fact good for their users.

This claim will surprise many readers. Has Whyte got his hands on some radical new research about the health effects of drugs? No. I’ve got my hands on an orthodox theory of welfare. Something is good for you if its benefits exceed its costs. Otherwise it is bad for you.

This simple principle means that you cannot properly condemn something by considering only its costs, such as the damage it does to health. If you consider only the costs, everything is bad for you. Eating has costs, such as the price of food and the risk of choking. Should we conclude that eating is bad for you?

The question is not whether drug use has costs. Every activity has. The question is whether these costs exceed the benefits. It is easy to show that they do not, but we should first recognise what the benefit is – for some reason, nobody engaged in the drugs debate ever mentions it. The benefit of taking drugs is that it is pleasurable.

That is why people do it, and why it is good for them. Drug users are people for whom the pleasure outweighs the risk of death, illness, addiction and the rest. In other words, they are people for whom the benefits of drug use exceed the costs. They wouldn’t be drug users otherwise. The same is not true of everyone. Some people value health more and pleasure less. For them, drug taking would deliver a net loss. And they won’t do it.

The point is not peculiar to drugs. Change the example. Is synchronised swimming good for you? That depends on the how much you like the upside (the exercise, the company, the nice costumes) and how much you dislike the downside (the exercise, the company, the nice costumes). If your values make synchronised swimming a net benefit, you will do it. If not, you won’t. Welfare and liberty are in perfect harmony. People voluntarily do only what is good for them.

Provided, of course, that they are properly informed. If you underestimate the cost of some activity, you might do it even though its costs exceed its benefits. This possibility is sometimes used to justify the criminalisation of drugs. But underestimation cuts both ways. People might fail to do something that is good for them because they underestimate the benefits. Those who have never taken ecstasy might not know how wonderful it feels. Should it be made compulsory to eliminate this risk?

It is impossible to know how much strangers care about their health or the pleasure of getting high, or twirling in a pool, or anything else that enters into the trade-offs they make. So it is impossible to know what is good for them and what bad. The humility that comes from recognising this impossibility is the proper foundation of liberalism. It is a shame more pundits and policy makers cannot learn it.

Jamie Whyte is a senior fellow of the Cobden Centre and author of Crimes Against Logic (McGraw Hill 2004).