John Stuart Mill- On Liberty, and the Drug War

I’ve just finished the John Stuart Mill classic On Liberty. JSM was a 19th century philosopher and political economist. Inter alia, JSM is famous for his refinement of the harm principle. The harm principle is a foundation of modern libertarian (or classical liberal) thought. The HP as explained by JSM-

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Well, what about drug abuse? People do bad things on drugs. Shouldn’t we just ban drugs so people won’t harm others while high? JSM offers a radically simple solution. Instead of banning substances, we should only hold men responsible for actions that harm others. JSM explains-

In the frequent case of a man who causes grief to his family by addiction to bad habits he deserves reproach for his unkindness… but so may he [with] habits not in themselves considered vicious. No person ought to punished for being drunk; but a soldier or policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. With regard to the merely contingent or… constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public… or to any individual except himself, the inconvenience is one society can afford to bear for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.

Compare Mill’s view with these Prohibition apologetics by John McCain
. Mr. McCain believes that drugs always cause intoxication and must be outlawed. The fact that we have hundreds of criminal laws that forbid every bad thing an intoxicated (or sober) individual could do does not matter.

Unlike Mr. Mill, John McCain does not believe that individuals are sovereign over their body and mind. The GOP presidential nominee believes that your sobriety, mind, and body are merely property of the federal government. (McCain also ignoresthe obvious hypocrisy of his wife’s criminal acts as a drug addict).

Remember my Kaufman County Opportunity Costs story? Half of a felony court docket was there for possession drugs, the other half was there for violating the harm principle. Which group do you want to spend tax dollars to prosecute? Those who possess a substance, or those who harm others? On Liberty may be 150 years old, however it offers some fresh ideas for our tired drug war.
I look forward to the day when our country embraces the greater good of human freedom.

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