One of the most appealing aspects of libertarian political philosophy is that it demands the legalization of all victimless crimes. Those within the liberty movement celebrate as legalization of various currently prohibited activities (drugs, gambling, prostitution) tends to slowly gain in popularity and social acceptance. The amount of “legalization” measures on various state ballots seems to increase each election cycle, and the votes are starting to get closer and closer.
A lot of the growing popularity of legalization comes from those who self-identify as liberals or leftists. Drug legalization is considered a “social issue” and libertarians are often characterized as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” Usually, the freedom movement welcomes those on the left with open arms to work towards the common cause of increasing personal freedom by legalizing currently outlawed social “vices.”
As tempting as it may be to reach out and build alliances, we must always keep in mind that self-described liberals are in fact statists, and are not necessarily interested in freedom as the ultimate end. Spend some time searching around the Internet for arguments in favor of legalizing drugs, gambling, or prostitution and you will often find arguments based entirely on three words. Words that should cause any libertarian to recoil in horror: “Tax and regulate.”
Many “social liberals” advance what they deem to be a “practical” argument in favor of legalization. They are appalled at the existence of black markets, where, much to their dismay, goods and services are exchanged freely between individuals without government involvement. This, of course, is a state of affairs that absolutely must not be allowed to continue. When the social liberal looks at legalization, he sees an opportunity to expand the reach of the state. They tout all of the additional money that the government could be collecting in taxes if only it was able to steal 35% of the profits of the drug trade. They look at the various fees that could be charged and licenses that could be required for people to buy to operate a casino. They look at the potential votes that could be controlled through a sex worker’s union.
Those in the liberty movement must be careful to avoid the temptation of accepting these government interventions for the sake of coalition building. We do not want the legalization of marijuana as a method of increasing the revenues of the state. We want it because we have the right to our own bodies.
Here in Oregon, we have a ballot measure coming up in November that is popularly referred to as a bill for “legalized gambling.” At first, I was excited to hear that such a measure was up for a vote. As a libertarian, I am absolutely in favor of legalized gambling, as gambling is willing trade between two individuals which the government has absolutely no right to forbid. However, upon closer inspection, this measure is actually just another government money and power grab. Here is an excerpt from the summary of the bill:
Under the Ballot Measure amendment, a privately-owned casino may be allowed to operate in this state, only if, all of the following criteria are satisfied: (i) The privately-owned casino must be approved by a separate statewide initiative; (ii) The privately-owned casino must be located in an incorporated city and the electors of that incorporated city must approve the casinos development; (iii) The privately-owned casino must be owned and operated by a taxpaying corporation that is incorporated in Oregon; (iv) The privately-owned casino may not be located within 60 miles of a tribal casino that was operating on reservation land on January 1, 2011; and finally, (v) The privately-owned casino must pay twenty-five (25) percent of its adjusted gross revenues to the State of Oregon. Eighty percent of each payment must be deposited into the Oregon State Lottery Fund and 20 percent must be deposited into a fund established by Ballot Measure yy (IRR 38)
Got all that? Does this bill sound to you like it increases personal freedom in any meaningful capacity? Of course not. In fact, the casino company that was largely behind this bill made no mention of personal freedom and natural rights in its advertising campaign (that has since been suspended because polling indicates the measure is likely to fail). The advertising campaign was mainly focused on how many jobs the proposed casino would create (an easily identifiable Keynesian fallacy) and how the casino would be paying 20% of its revenues to the schools (won’t somebody think of the children?)
This bill does nothing to increase the natural right to free trade. Rather, it merely codifies that gambling is something the government has every right to restrict in whatever way it so chooses. This is an unacceptable compromise. I personally chose to leave this measure blank on my ballot. A yes vote might suggest that I am okay with all of the freedom-restricting specifics of the bill. A no vote might imply that I somehow agree that gambling should be forbidden. Both options on this measure represent an oppressive state interfering with the natural rights of its citizens, therefore I could not in good conscience vote on this measure at all.
As the message of liberty spreads and legalization initiatives grow, we must be wary of statists who attempt to hijack pro-freedom initiatives and subvert them for their own specific special interests. Legalization is a moral issue. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution should be legalized because we own our own bodies and therefore have the natural right to decide how we choose to use them. They should not be legalized as a method of increasing the power of the state, or the size of its tax-base. When liberals say “Legalize, tax, and regulate,” we must speak loudly and clearly that the first is great, but the last two are unacceptable. The last thing our society needs is more taxes or more regulations.