Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance by Ben Lawson, on Flickr

Today in the Washington Post Michael Gerson went after Rep. Ron Paul for his Libertarian stance on policy that was on display in the first Republican freak show, er debate in South Carolina last week. At issue was the idea that things like prostitution and drugs should be decriminalized, including highly addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Now, I am not one to normally defend Rep. Paul’s positions, I find most of them really pernicious but on the issues of ending our foreign wars and decriminalization of drugs marijuana we have a little bit of commonality.

I get where he is coming form on the harder drugs as well. After all we have addicts to these substances, people who want to use them have very little trouble finding them, and the cost of trying interdict the drugs and shut down the drug trade is huge and frankly sunk costs because we are not actually shutting this business down, just managing it to a chronic level.

I am not sure that we actually have to legalize these drugs, after all if we could decouple marijuana from the harder drugs by legalizing it there is evidence that less people would be exposed to drug dealers that want to push the more expensive, more profitable and addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin

In any case Mr. Gerson uses the ideas that Rep. Paul expounds to write him out of serious contention for the Republican nomination. Not because of policy arguments but because he believes that it is important for government to set the boundaries of behavior for citizens, for their own good!

Gerson gives this example:

Even by this permissive standard, drug legalization fails. The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods — say, in Washington, D.C. — has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their “personal habits.”


Of course this is the conservative way of arguing. He takes a situation that, even he admits is de facto and extrapolates that it would be exactly the same if the criminalization of these acts were removed. This completely ignores the fact that we have these problems already and that our current system is doing exactly nothing to alleviate them.

At least Gerson is not guilty of pointing out a problem and then failing to provide a solution. Though the solution he provides is pretty telling to me. Take a look at this:

The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

Let’s take that a part bit by bit, shall we? What first jumps out at me is the “Jewish and Christian traditions” stuff. I know I should be surprised coming from a conservative douche like Gerson, but this flat statement that only these two religious traditions have anything to teach people about being good members of a society was like sand in my eyes.

I am an atheist, so I find all religion to be suspect but there are some nuggets here and there that can be useful once you pan them out of the gravel of god bothering. I like the golden rule, I like the idea that you should support your community, I think that it is a good idea not to kill other people and that you should not take their stuff. However those ideas are not unique to Judaism or Christianity and it is more than a little offensive to see the assumption of their superiority trotted out as a self evident fact.

The next thing one notices when reading that paragraph is the total cognitive dissonance between the idea that the government should be limited and that one of its most important roles is reinforcing social norms and expectations.

So which is it? It really can not be both. If it is limited then you have to trust your citizens to do the right thing on their own. If you are going to use government to reinforce social norms, and they are based on Judeo-Christian values then you are going to be quickly to the place where you are banning abortion, and investigating every miscarriage. Maybe you don’t know but 1 in 3 pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. If we are enforcing those social norms, we would be spending more on these investigations than we ever did on the so-called war on drugs.

But it goes further than that. What about sex? Lets face it, everyone has some kind of kink they like. I don’t care what it is, but you probably do something with your sexual partner(s) that is generally considered a little (or a lot) out there. It would be outside the social “norm” (maybe not, it is hard to tell since we don’t talk about sex frankly in this country, but the assumption would be that it is) should the laws of our nation prohibit that? Of course the caveat is that we do draw a line on consent and adulthood, but I tend to think in Gerson’s “decent, orderly neighborhoods” that he would want everyone doing it missionary style, maybe some oral sex on birthdays and holidays but that is all.

Which brings me to the “decent, orderly neighborhoods” part. Maybe I spend too much time reading Conservatives but does anyone else feel like that is a dog whistle with an English into English translation to “neighborhoods like white people have”? The places where Gerson sees the needles and de facto legalization in Washington D.C. tend to be predominately African American.

While he want to be sure that we are enforcing the blue laws, Gerson and conservatives are strangely absent when it comes to do the things that would make prostitution and drug use less of an acceptable option in these neighborhoods, in the Capital and the nation at large.

You know, things like better schools, more jobs, a continuation of affirmative action to give people who have had no chances an opportunity to get into the mainstream and show what they can do when assumptions and prejudice are not blocking them out.

No, you see when it comes to that kind of thing, it is every person for themselves. They can’t be bothered to have a collective responsibility to the community. People need to be responsible for their own choices.

While I find Gerson’s moralizing distasteful, it is interesting that the difference between him and Rep. Paul is far narrower than he thinks. After all Rep. Paul wants people to have all the choices and be responsible for all the consequences good and bad of them. Michael Gerson wants people to be responsible for all their economic choices, but the government to be responsible for moral choices, and to spend a lot of money enforcing those choices.

Since I have a choice I choose neither. In any society there is a need for rules and law. But what those rules and law should do is work to balance the disparity in power of wealth and position. A free people are a people who all have the same rights and how they are treated by their justice system, their education system and their legislators should not be dependent on how much money they have or what family they are born into.

The floor is yours.