Is bureaucratic regulation and taxation always preferable to prohibition?
Libertarians fighting each other over a symbolic piece of legislation that will never be signed into law is pointless at best and counter-productive at worst
The federal government’s “War on Drugs” is not likely to go away anytime soon, but one battle that could conceivably be won in the present is repealing federal laws that make marijuana illegal. Such a piece of legislation, if the goal is to maximize freedom, need only be a single sentence long.
All federal laws in the United States of America prohibiting the growing, sale, or use of marijuana are hereby repealed.
That’s not how the U.S. government operates, however. As Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) points out, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to legalize marijuana, but it also increases the power of the federal government to tax, regulate, and oversee the growth and sale of marijuana.
Even when they’re doing something good, the U.S. federal government must poison the well by making sure that they end up having more power at the end of the day. This prompted the libertarian-leaning Massie to vote against the bill on the grounds that, while he supports legalizing marijuana, he opposes an increase in taxes and federal regulations.
This prompted Nick Gillespie, editor-at-large at the libertarian Reason magazine, to attack Massie’s vote on Twitter, and an episode of the Reason Roundtable podcast with Gillespie, Matt Welch, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and Peter Suderman to explain why Massie was wrong to vote the way he did. They state, “Yes, taxes and regulation are bad. No, they're not worse than locking people up.”
It’s not correct to try to boil down this argument to a simple either-or proposition; “taxes and regulation” or “locking people up;” as the Reason staff is trying to do, because with taxes and regulation comes the threat of “locking people up” if they refuse to pay the taxes or to abide by the regulations. Yes, prohibition is a regulation that leads to non-violent people being incarcerated for selling, growing, and/or smoking marijuana, but this piece of legislation only changes the terms by which non-violent people can be incarcerated as it relates to their involvement with marijuana.
In other words, it is at best unclear whether this legislation represents an increase in personal liberty or not, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best. Both sides are claiming that their position is the one that increases individual liberty, which should be the goal of any position a libertarian takes, but there is at least a debate to be had on the subject to see which side is actually correct.
Smearing and distorting the position of arguably the most libertarian politician in the U.S. government since Ron Paul, as Gillespie did on Twitter, actively harms the cause of increasing individual liberty. All it does is create more hostility and division among a group of individuals already obsessed with purity tests and striking out heretics from their ranks (This is why I stopped self-identifying as a libertarian a while ago) over an issue that they should be open to having an intellectual debate about.
As far as that debate goes, I think that Massie took the correct position based purely on strategic grounds. This was a purely symbolic vote in the House as it was never expected to even be taken up for debate, let alone a vote, in the Senate, nor would it be likely to pass if it were. Therefore, since marijuana is not going to be legalized either way, it makes more sense for Massie to take a public stand and make as much noise as he can against any federal regulation or taxation of marijuana now, because that is the fight that will be had, and probably lost, in the future when marijuana prohibition is inevitably repealed at the federal level. Massie at least laid the groundwork for the arguments libertarians, including at Reason, will presumably be making when that day comes.