Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

For as long as I can remember the joke about libertarians is that they are Republicans who like to smoke pot. Those who identify as libertarian seem to go to great lengths to point out their ideological differences with Republicans (and conservatives more generally). They stress liberty above all and oppose anything – like, say, non-military government spending – they perceive as even peripherally infringing on it. In addition to heartily approving of the freedom to, say, die without insurance, libertarians have long denounced the drug war as a hateful incursion on peoples’ freedom.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities to tease out whether libertarians truly are independent gadflies or just slightly heterodox Republicans. To get a solid answer, we would need to see one of their favored policies enacted. Since their ideas (agree with them or not) aren’t really in the political mainstream, their commitment to them never really gets put to the test.

Armstrong Legalize Marijuana

Happily, the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado provides just one of those rare cases. Libertarians have long criticized the drug war, with leading voices such as Radley Balko and John Stossel weighing in against it, Matt Welch reporting on its hoped-for demise, and so on. (This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive survey. I pick up libertarian names from ambient political noise, so in this post I checked ones I was familiar with.)

The initial days of legalization anywhere in the country would seem to be cause for great celebration: the first crack in the rotten edifice! An opportunity to see one of their principles enacted! Shouldn’t this be a subject of intense interest at the moment? Yet none of the writers mentioned above have weighed in so far. Stossel didn’t even see fit to mention it in his year in freedom post at the end of last month. With the exception of Nick Gillespie, and full credit to him on this, libertarians have been awfully quiet on what should be a momentous achievement.

Libertarian outlets are similarly quiet, or worse. Cato has plenty to say about social spending, unemployment insurance and the Federal Reserve, but nothing on this week’s tremendous advance in liberty. Meanwhile, The American Conservative, which claims to stand “for fiscal responsibility, civil liberties, and a prudent foreign policy,” published a really, um, interesting piece on how smoking pot is fine for trust fund babies but not the rabble. (The comments are worth reading – at least readers take the site’s stated mission seriously.)

As for elected leaders, I’ll just note that one libertarian darling has spent the week engaged in cheap political grandstanding and not celebrating the march of freedom. (It’s not as though Citizen Paul were a sitting United States Senator with the power to impanel hearings and subpoena witnesses, right?)

Funny enough, there is a libertarian case to make against the Colorado law, or at least to temper enthusiasm about it. One of the major selling points of decriminalization is that it amounts to back door sentencing reform. Get rid of pot laws and you eliminate an entire class of nonviolent offenders from prison – along with a less onerous police presence, another libertarian priority. But what if only the most privileged part of that class benefits? As Goldie Taylor put it:

When they tell you this is about lessening the strain of law enforcement, don’t believe them. It’s about advancing – even if unintentionally – institutionalized profiling. It’s a license to descend upon every street corner and alleyway in search of illegal weed peddlers. Aside from tourism and real estate, the prison industrial complex is among the biggest employers in Colorado. That will not change. Those metal prison beds, run by private for-profit companies, must still be sold. And we know who will not be sleeping in them.

Libertarians could easily say: let’s not get carried away, let’s make sure we aren’t being sold a bill of goods, let’s see if this really works out as advertised. It might well fall way short of what was promised. It might have a negligible effect among people of color and the poor, and just give better off white folks an official pass on the risk they had only marginally borne anyway.

We aren’t hearing that; what we are mostly hearing is crickets. If this really meant as much to libertarians as they’ve always claimed, they should be shouting the news from the rooftops – but that would not sit well with the GOP establishment. Or: They can either act as gadflies or as slightly heterodox Republicans. Most are choosing the latter. While that’s a little disappointing I can’t honestly say it’s surprising.

Photo from Bart Everson licensed under Creative Commons