Birch Smith, Hillsdale College, 2017
Let me preface everything I’m about to say in the next few articles by explaining a number of underlying assumptions that I’m working off. Hopefully this will save everyone some time, and maybe prevent a comment-section flame war, or at least save the discussion for more substantive points. First, I’m assuming that as Christians we ought to look at the culture, and the people around us, with compassion and love, love being defined in the traditional philosophical way of ‘seeking the good of the other for the sake of the other.’ That is to say, we attempt to truly and genuinely bring about real goods in the lives of those around us, and in the community and society at large. Admittedly, the greatest good is knowledge of and communion with God, but this does not change the fact that there are a wide variety of other goods essential to human flourishing; and that we ought, in a proportionate and prudential way, seek those goods.
Secondly, we Christians ought to look at our unsaved neighbors with the following perspective: if they are in fact unsaved, their biggest problem is the state of their soul, not what sins in particular they choose to commit. We dare not focus our efforts on eliminating sexual sins, or drug use, if we proceed to adopt a self-satisfied and complaisant air at our good work bringing salt and light to the world around us. If we eradicate all vice, but the individuals around us do not accept Christ, we have done, if not precisely nothing, very little indeed. In fact there may be an acute danger in the sort of Christian moralism that seeks to reform external behavior, not only to the Christian himself (hypocrisy and self-righteousness) but to the individuals living in outward conformity to Christian morals: there is no more dangerous place for the individual than to believe himself more or less ‘OK,’ and thus not in need of a savior. Attempting to sanctify a soul who has not understood and accepted God as his ultimate good is a fool’s errand.
Finally, our responsibility to our neighbor is not to make them look and live like Christians, it is to show forth the love, glory, goodness, and truth of God. With that, I turn to three areas in which I believe Christians have for years demonstrated fundamentally disordered priorities and poor reasoning.
Part I: The War on Drugs.
On this issue, as well as on the issues I plan to discuss next, the battle lines have been clearly drawn for years, and (particularly evangelical) Christians have consistently arrayed themselves on the side of social conservatism. Drugs are harmful to the individuals that use them, to their families, and to society at large, they say, and are almost certainly sinful to use. Fine. Concede all those points, and I believe we still lack a compelling reason to take legal action. It’s my intention to explain why, and I intend to do so without referring to the conventional libertarian arguments about whether various levels of government have the proper authority to ban what sort of substances people choose to ingest (for the record, I tend to be sympathetic to those arguments, and generally believe them to be correct with certain qualifications, but I do not think they are the strongest or most persuasive argument, especially since many Christians are not accustomed to libertarian political assumptions).
The political community, as Aristotle and many other thinkers have said, is to aim at the good and the just, and in this sense is to be idealistic. But, as many political thinkers have also emphasized, politics is inherently prudential, even pragmatic: “the art of the possible.” This tension is necessary for a just and flourishing society; as one of my favorite college professors put it (he was describing ancient and medieval views of human nature and politics), “high ideals, low expectations.” This is in direct opposition to modern strains of political thought, which has very high expectations for relatively low ideals. Christians, mindful of the life and teachings of Christ, have quite properly rejected the low ideals of modern society, but have largely failed to adjust their expectations to more reasonable levels. Yes, we all want a perfect world without sin, evil, and suffering, and we will get it – we just won’t get it here and now, with human institutions alone.
This means that in considering any potential policy, we need to ask ourselves questions about how likely the proposed policy is to actually effect its intended result, and perhaps more importantly, what other goods, and how many people, might be harmed. If we are not doing real good, for real human beings, we are acting unjustly. So, what is the real impact of the war on drugs, and how do we properly weigh the goods involved in order to achieve human flourishing?
First, the historical precedent for such legal action ought to have been a warning: America had barely concluded its failed experiment in prohibition when it decided to begin the war on drugs. What we should have learned from that era (if we hadn’t learned it from countless other historical examples, or from simple common sense) is that making something illegal doesn’t actually do much to discourage its circulation, provided sufficient demand for it exists. It simply creates a black market. This is only logical: it’s much easier to hide something, and sell it in secret, than it is to find something that’s hidden and sold in secret. Conservatives seems to have gotten this principle quite well when it comes to gun laws but appear curiously blind to its application to drugs. The simple reality is that, much like prohibition created an entire network of smugglers, speakeasies, and famous gangsters; the war on drugs has made profitable the activities of cartels and gangs not only in our own cities but in many countries around the world.
If we accept that changing the legal status of something, in general, does very little to change the demand for that thing; then we must also accept that that money goes somewhere. In this case, it goes to making criminal activity incredibly profitable for drug cartels and gangs, resulting in turmoil in inner cities, countless deaths and acts of violence, and massive sectors of the population incarcerated on drug-related offenses. The activities of these organizations is directly caused by the fact that illegal drugs are incredibly expensive, in large part because they are so addictive. Addicts, by nature, have incredibly high demand, and thus are willing to pay increasing prices for their drug of choice. Those high prices, in turn, spawn countless other crimes as desperate users steal in order to afford their drugs. The only way to stop this cycle and destroy the criminal network connected with it is to legalize their primary product, thus removing its profitability. There are no bootleggers and moonshine distilleries on the ‘back 40’ anymore for no other reason than that Anheuser-Busch, operating in the light of day, can make beer much more safely and inexpensively than any small private operation. You don’t have to like drugs to say you’d rather have them produced safely and legally, and distributed at non-inflated market prices and without violent criminal activity.
To understand these things is to understand that tragedy is real. Sometimes we are placed in circumstances where, through no fault of our own, every choice we have leads to some evil (material or moral) and some lessening of human flourishing. Drugs are, in an overwhelming number of cases, a societal evil. People do ruin their lives, abandon their families, and even kill others (recklessly or intentionally) because of drug use. But nothing that we are able to do has ever proven to stop that, or even decrease it significantly. Many more people die because of unsafe product or usage and because of violence involved in the current black market. Inner cities are torn apart, and have been for generations, by drug-related violence. Legalizing drugs, and thus refusing to provide gangs with relatively easy and profitable criminal activity, may be one of the best things was can do for those communities.
Removing Christian support for the war on drugs, and supporting legalization, is not a panacea, because there are no earthly panaceas. We will not eliminate gangs and cartels, or the violence they cause, but we can cause their activity and influence to decrease as their profits from the drug trade disappear. We will still be faced with the task of dealing with the social ills caused by drug use, and those questions and problems will be difficult to answer, but we will at least be able to do so in the light of day, in legitimate public discourse, and without the immense burden on our public resources and institutions that the war on drugs represents. We Christians must be good practical reasoners, and we must realize that the war on drugs is not only a failed and unrealistic endeavor; but is in fact causing great harm to the people it is meant to help and protect. Prudence dictates our opposition, and when we are confronted with tragedy we would do well to not seek to add evil to evil. Efforts should be refocused on interpersonal outreach, assistance, and healthy community. High ideals, low expectations.
Latest posts by Birch Smith (see all)
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- Guest Post: Natural Law and Marriage - July 1, 2017
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