Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What Are The Moral Obligations Of Citizens To Stop Governmental Action?

A reader takes me to task for opposing the gross overuse of no-knock warrants, the militarization of police, and the other consequences of the "War on Drugs" without supporting repeal of the drug laws:
You are willing to accept the certain death of innocents (and a great deal of other damage) as a consequence of prosecuting an un-winnable war which purpose is the prevention of an un-quantifiable amount of damage from the use of pot. 
Claiming that you don't agree with the methods used does not in my opionion leave you off the hook as to "accepting" the collateral damage. You know the methods will still be used and you know that innocent deaths will occur. Therefor you are willing to "accept" the collateral comage.
I don't find that a morally defensible position. Quite frankly I can't think of a better word than "cavalier" to describe it. You certainly seem absolutely un-moved as to be un-willing to entertain the only measure which will actually stop the deaths of innocents.
This raises an interesting question: at what point does a citizen have a moral obligation to forcibly oppose his government's immoral actions?  As I pointed out in a Shotgun News article a long time ago, there are circumstances and events so horrible that the government loses all legitimacy, and if citizens rise up against it, they are morally right.  But as the Declaration of Independence points out:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
There are plenty of incredibly stupid, corrupt things that our government does: stealing from people who work and giving to billionaires.  There are some actions that they take that are not intrinsically wrong (the use of drone strikes against terrorists) but that sometimes have very questionable consequences (when innocent bystanders get killed).  There are actions that make my blood run cold, such as execution of people where there are questions as to whether they got the right guy.  (My blood runs cold at every execution, but when the evidence is overwhelmingly, or the prisoner admits his guilt, I am not as bothered.)

The whole question of attempts to restrict intoxicants (whether alcohol, marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine) is necessarily a difficult issue.  The reason that these laws exist is there is a widespread perception, well supported by evidence, that some people do incredibly destructive and stupid things because of these intoxicants.  Many people handle intoxicants in a responsible manner, but just about everyone knows at least one person who is a perfect counterexample, leaving a debris trail of injured people behind them.  That's why these laws exist.

There needs to be appropriate limits on what we as a society are prepared to do to enforce such laws.  Part of why marijuana possession went from felony to misdemeanor, then to infraction, and in some states, to nothing, is that there was a popular perception that the harm from marijuana was not enough to justify the consequences that the laws imposed.  The inverse of that was that by reducing penalties, at least some people who might have held back from use decided that it was not such a big deal, and they were prepared to take that risk.

There are consequences to making marijuana possession legally less severe, and one of them was the development of a substantial subculture that regards marijuana as perfectly okay -- but that considers tobacco an evil that much be suppressed, such as the various California ordinances that prohibit smoking in one's own home, but that exempt marijuana.  (Clearly not libertarians; just people that believe something else needs discouragement.)

There are certainly some very bad things being done in the name of the War on Drugs, and we as citizens should demand our government stop them -- but that would require turning off Entertainment Tonight, putting down the joint or the beer, and composing a letter to our state legislators or Congressmen.  I rather doubt that is going to happen.  Much of the sometimes horrendous damage done today as part of the War on Drugs not attempts to interdict marijuana, but trying to stop meth and crack, both of which have very negative images to the vast majority of Americans, and with good reason.

At what point do citizens rise up and demand their government stop these abuses?  Unless you have a pretty large minority who are prepared to risk life, liberty and property by direct resistance, resistance is futile.  And if you have that large a minority, you are probably capable of influencing legislators to rein in the most absurd parts of the War on Drugs.  But a population that spends much of its time loaded isn't going to be doing either, is it?


  1. People should write their legislators more often. They should also try to convince their neighbors of their positions. Take the recent issue of Net Neutrality. Half of the advocates for it spend their time ranting about corporations instead of writing letters or making effective arguments. They try to use petitions to shortcut the democratic process and are infuriated when it doesn't work.

    I agree with a lot of the arguments, but think vertically separating the ISP/telecomm industry is a better idea. ISPs can run on top of the physical networks without being owned by Comcast or the other big companies (think MSN/AOL that ran on dial-up over telephone wire). Congress or the FCC could create last mile rules to allow smaller ISPs to reach rural communities (or run privately-owned ISPs on top of municipal fiber).

    But all I ever seem to read is that Republicans are tools of big corporations. I have no doubt some of them all, but Obama golfs with the CEO of Comcast. And Comcast donates to a lot Progressive-oriented groups.

  2. The interesting part for me in this debate (and others) is that there are so many parallels that seem to exist between the positions of opposing sides of the political spectrum as they relate to differing subject matter.

    As a vehement gun rights supporter, I unilaterally reject the notion that potential for wrongdoing is intrinsically tied to the firearm itself, and therefore on principle feel that I must view drugs in a similar light despite that, on a personal level, I abhor their very existence. Some folks feel that my carrying of a firearm is immoral but the only thing I have a legitimate right to demand from them is enough respect for my natural rights to leave me be to my life and choices, so long as I wield no aggressive violence toward them. The same respect should be afforded those who choose to imbibe or ingest whatever they want as the drugs and the violence are separate choices and behaviors.

    ”The reason that these laws exist is there is a widespread perception, well supported by evidence, that some people do incredibly destructive and stupid things because of these intoxicants. Many people handle intoxicants in a responsible manner, but just about everyone knows at least one person who is a perfect counterexample, leaving a debris trail of injured people behind them. That's why these laws exist."

    It seems that in a different context, your proceeding quote could generally apply to firearms as well from some people's perspective (with the noted exception of the arguable causation – but then, simple anger can cause the same sort of destructive choices in an irresponsible gun wielder). Though not a perfect analogy, of course, folks who support gun rights – even though there are undeniably evil or just plain old boneheaded people who misuse those firearms (the legitimate infringements) – seemingly ought to feel similarly about drug use/possession. It is the not the drugs or their use that is the problem, but rather the violent behavior that some drug users pursue, similarly to the relatively rare individual gun wielder.

    What complicates this issue further – particularly as it causes conflict between practicality and principle – is the growing (illegitimate) role of the state as the de facto caretaker of folks when they exercise such personal choices. As with the subject of firearms, or any liberty/right for that matter, drug use should be a freely elected choice of the individual but the consequences of those choices should be the individual's responsibility to bear alone. Unfortunately, responsibility is sorely lacking in most arenas, a sad fact that complicates virtually all political issues that should be a simple exercise in principle.

    We cannot legislate morality but we sure can legislatively remove natural incentives to make good choices it seems.