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Who’s Responsible for Whom?

Here’s a letter to a long-time correspondent:

Mr. L. ____

Mr. L. ____:

Thanks as always for your e-mail.

In response to my call to abolish nanny-state ‘protections,’ you write that “there is a practical problem: When individuals make poor decisions, the rest of us are compelled to bail them out.  When Smith ingests whatever substances he wishes and is near death, shall we let him die?”

I’ve a three-part answer:

First, who are “we”?  Individuals relate to each other in a rich variety of different voluntary associations such as families, friendships, clubs, and neighbors.  For their members, these associations offer privileges as well as carry responsibilities.  For example, I certainly would not let my son die even if he were irresponsibly overdosing on a drug, be it a legal one such as alcohol, or an illegal one such as heroin.  So, yes, of course we have responsibilities to each other – even to those among us who are foolish – but we have only those responsibilities that we voluntarily choose to have within the institutions of civil society.  “We” are not obliged to use the state to force each other to ‘care’ indiscriminately for each other.

Second, anyone, such as yourself, who values the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals should steadfastly resist the use of state power to protect individuals from the consequences of their own choices – especially when the exercise of that power restricts responsible-individuals’ freedom to pursue peaceful activities that are pursued also by a subset of irresponsible individuals.

Third, your question presumes that legalizing all drugs will make drug use more hazardous.  I dispute this presumption.  Not only will legalization encourage reputable, peaceful suppliers to displace the violent criminals who now supply prohibited drugs – not only will legalization diminish abusers’ reluctance to reveal their addictions to friends and physicians – not only will legalization permit legal recourse against those who supply drugs more dangerous or toxic than their buyers had reason to suspect – legalization will also, by ridding suppliers of the need to conceal their products from the authorities, reduce the potency of drugs, thus reducing the risks of accidental overdosing.

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