All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1990

Drugs and Dumbness

Mr. Matthew is studying law at the University of Chicago Law School

Perhaps the most important question of the 20th century has been a simple one: Who owns the individual? Do I own myself, or do I belong to the state? Clearly if I belong to the state, then drug prohibition is a proper exercise of state power. The state, like any owner, is justified in protecting its property and in using that property as it sees fit. On the other hand, if I belong to myself, then prohibition is a clear and unacceptable infringement of my fight to dispose of my property—myself—as I see fit.

In my opinion, drugs are a foolish way for you to spend your time. But since I don’t own you, or have any property fight in you or legal claim on you, my opinion shouldn’t count for much. Your taking drugs in the privacy of your own home doesn’t impinge on my property rights. After all, I think comic-book collecting is also foolish. Skydiving and mountain climbing are “dumb.” I regard spending ten years training six hours a day for a one-in-a-million chance at an Olympic medal as a big waste of time. But those are decisions I can make only for myself.

What a sad world this would be if everything that the majority (or a vocal minority) thought was foolish were also illegal. Sometimes the one bright spark in a person’s life is something most people think is dumb! Why else would they buck strong public opinion just to continue their “foolishness”?

Your temptation is to say that drugs are different, but they are not. Drugs are simply one dumb way to spend your time. Working 80 hours a week while your marriage falls apart and your kids learn to hate you is also dumb. Falling to your death while mountain climbing, leaving your children alone and unprovided for is dumb. Dropping out of school one week before graduation because you “feel like it” is dumb and self-destructive too. Smoking cigarettes and eating fatty foods can kill you. Haven’t you noticed that life is full of a million ways to be dumb and self-destructive, and thereby hurt the other people in your life? And you know what—not one of them is illegal! Just drugs.

Now, you still must behave yourself while on drugs. If you drive while stoned, you should be in trouble. If you give drugs to children, you should be locked away. if you commit a crime while high, you should do time for the crime. Drugs are not an excuse, but neither are they, themselves, for a self-owning adult, anything other than dumb.

A challenge of life is to not hurt yourself and others. But it is a challenge we often must face alone. No one can decide for you whether you should work for that gold medal. No one besides you can know whether you should go to law school or hitchhike across Europe. To someone doing one thing, the other thing can appear foolish. Do you want “society” to make this decision for you? Then why should society decide if you can get high?

To me, America is a deal we’ve all made together. It’s a deal rarely found elsewhere in the world, and it’s what makes America special. I promise to let you be a fool as long as you don’t damage my property (including me), and in return you allow me the same freedom. Legitimate governments are instituted among men to protect them and their property from the aggression of others, not from their own foolishness.

With each of us living his own life, we have the chance to make something out of those lives. I should avoid drugs, as I should avoid all dumb things, but the decision on how to live a happy life is necessarily mine to make. It is true that I may fail, but life would be meaningless without that possibility. If, instead of working on improving my own life, I try to save you from being foolish, and you insist on saving me from being foolish, we will each reap nothing but frustration and failure.