Repeat After Me, David Brooks: Repealing Prohibition Is Not the Same As Endorsing the Previously Prohibited Activity


New York Times columnist David Brooks has a piece out about pot in which he confesses that, "For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana," but "then we all sort of moved away from it." Not a particularly unique progression, that; even if it does contradict generations' worth of taxpayer-financed propaganda about the dangers of even one puff.

Brooks concludes his tour of youthful experimentation not by knocking on wood that his life wasn't needlessly truncated by incarceration, but by musing on where such activity should fall on the encouragement/discouragement scale:  "I don't have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time," he writes, "but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged."

I wouldn't have any problem with that, if people like Brooks limited their discouragement to the marketplace of public debate. Instead, they too often advocate using force to deter individuals from making potentially suboptimal personal choices, and otherwise mis-identify government as a giant sanctioning machine. As demonstrated by this remarkable sentence:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use.

Gawker's John Cook did the best job of highlighting the absurdity and wrong-headedness of that sentence:

We now have a couple states that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging David Brooks.

The absence of prohibition is not the presence of government sanction. There are a countless number of perfectly legal activities I may find personally abhorrent—giving money to a major-party politician, driving at the speed limit in the fast lane, rooting for the Boston Red Sox—but keeping them legally permissible is not a case of my values being trampled by the state. If anything, the opposite is true: The more government uses laws to shape behavior, the more it is likely to offend your core values, whatever they may be.

Brooks, as is his wont, closes his column with a flourish of see-no-government-evil authoritarianism:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I'd say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

The Drug War is to "subtly tip[ping] the scale" as a firing squad is to gentle discouragement. "Healthy societies" don't throw millions of people into human meat lockers to satisfy the moral urges of social engineers. It is "a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be" after you go to jail for engaging in the same recreational activity as a teenage David Brooks. The "moral ecology" got a whole better on Jan. 1, and will get better still when people stop using the criminal code as a laboratory experiment on their fellow human beings.

Bonus video: Here's the great Penn Jillette talking about legal pot Monday night on The Independents:

UPDATE: I cannot vouch for the authenticity, but here's a detailed piece titled "I smoked pot with David Brooks." Includes the immortal phrase, "And here all along I thought he quit because of that time we got pulled over by the Radnor cops in senior year right after we'd clambaked his Mom's Vista Cruiser…."

UPDATE II: Looks like the aforementioned piece is probably definitely satire.