The Risky Business of Communicating Liberty
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Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman was one of the earliest prominent public advocates of ending the War on Drugs.
In a 1991 interview on “America’s Drug Forum,” a national PBS public affairs talk show, Friedman made this excellent point:
“The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting people from overeating.
“We all know that overeating causes more deaths than drugs do. If it’s in principle OK for the government to say you must not consume drugs because they’ll do you harm, why isn’t it all right to say you must not eat too much because you’ll do harm?
“Why isn’t it all right to say you must not try to go in for skydiving because you’re likely to die? Why isn’t it all right to say, ‘Oh, skiing, that’s no good, that’s a very dangerous sport, you’ll hurt yourself’? Where do you draw the line?”
This is a powerful argument for persuading others of the unfairness of the War on Drugs.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Overweight and obesity are leading risks for global deaths. Around 3.4 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, being overweight or obese “substantially increase[s] the risk of morbidity from hypertension, dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea and respiratory problems, as well as cancers of the endometrium, breast, prostate, and colon. Higher body weights are also associated with an increase in mortality from all causes.”
Scary stuff! Yet no one — well, almost no one — would support a violent War on Eating Too Much Food, with armed Food Police breaking into fast food joints and homes to stop people from overeating. Few would support outlawing common foods associated with obesity, despite the documented dangers and huge social costs.
And what about swimming?
According to the Center for Disease Control, about 3,600 people — many of them children — die annually from accidental drowning, the fifth largest cause of accidental death in the United States. Yet we allow adults and children complete freedom to swim.
Disturbing research finds that football, boxing, hockey and other contact sports can cause severe and permanent brain damage. Yet millions of Americans still support and participate in these sports.
There are countless other risky activities we casually accept. Bungee jumping looks crazy to me, riding a motorcycle isn’t my thing, and I won’t be gazing down at the world from atop Mount Everest. But I strongly support and defend the right of others to engage in these things – along with the great majority of Americans.
Indeed, the freedom to make risky choices in such personal matters is a bedrock American value. Most people today make exceptions to this value only in certain narrow areas — most notably drugs. (And just some drugs, of course — not, for instance, liquor and tobacco, to bring up another wild inconsistency.)
When you use comparisons and concrete examples like the ones above, you help your listeners grasp the unfairness, injustice and inconsistency of the War on Drugs. It can be very effective to have specific numbers and reliable sources when making these comparisons, as I’ve done here, but just citing any risky but legal activity can open minds.
Try it — the risk is yours to take!
Thanks to Carpe Diem, Mark Perry’s outstanding economic blog, for recently mentioning Milton Friedman’s interview, which can be read in its entirety here.
That interview is also in the superb book Friedman & Szasz On Liberty and Drugs: Essays on the Free Market and Prohibition (1992), which features essays by Friedman and the great libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.