All Commentary
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Freedom Necessarily Includes the Freedom to Act Self-Destructively

The state has no more right to tell me what I can put into my body than it does to tell me what can come out of my mouth.

Here’s a letter to a long-time, very thoughtful patron of Cafe Hayek who e-mailed me in response to this post:

Mr. Larry D_________:

You ask, in effect, if I believe that the state is justified in using force to prevent people from selling and buying opioids, and from using opioids to get high. My answer is no. I fully endorse Milton Friedman’s summary of this issue: “I don’t think the state has any more right to tell me what to put in my mouth than it has to tell me what can come out of my mouth. Those two are essentially the same thing – and they both are essential elements of freedom.”

A ‘social’ problem far worse than drug abuse is power abuse – which is heavily fueled by the notion that it’s okay to butt into each other’s personal affairs if we do so through the agency of the state. But I emphatically reject the notion that using the agency of the state transforms otherwise unjust actions into just – or even acceptable – actions.

If my neighbor were ruining his life and undermining his family’s happiness by abusing alcohol, I would do my best to peacefully persuade him to mend his ways. But were I to use coercion to prevent him from using alcohol, I would step way out of bounds. I would become a criminal. Ultimately, his life is his business; it’s not mine. Ditto if my neighbor were ruining his life and undermining his family’s happiness by, say, gambling, philandering, or by overeating. In none of these circumstances is it my or anyone else’s business, besides that of his family, how my neighbor conducts his life. You would, I’m sure, regard me to be unambiguously in the wrong if, to stop my neighbor from overeating, I coerced him and his grocers into cages. The ethics of the situation are unchanged if I and other of my neighbors vote to hire a gang of armed thugs whom we call “the government” to coerce my neighbor into eating less. Such coercion against a peaceful person remains wrong.

And the ethics of the situation are also unchanged if my neighbor’s chosen method of self-destruction is opioid abuse rather than any one of the countless other methods available for self-destruction. An adult’s life belongs to him or her; it does not belong to you, to me, to the state, or to any collective.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

Reprinted from Cafe Hayek

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.