Last week the New York Times endorsed the legalization of marijuana. Jeffrey Miron in The Week follows that with a persuasive case for some form of legalization of all recreational drugs. The walls are coming down.
Beyond the drug war, state bans on same sex marriage are collapsing all over the country. Apart from a high profile initiative under the Bush Administration that netted only two indictments, the Justice Department has completely abandoned the prosecution of consensual obscenity. The concept of “public morality” as policy goal to be implemented by state action is disappearing. This is a breath of fresh air.
We are approaching the final collapse of the culture war. Voters under fifty have solidly abandoned the philosophy that government should dictate personal choices in matters that do not materially affect other people. At the same time, as our nation grows more solidly urban and each of us is more intimately connected to one another, we seem to be developing a greater tolerance for government interference in matters where our decisions do affect our neighbors.
Miron’s article on drug legalization sums up the philosophy behind this shift fairly well:
Perhaps the best reason to legalize hard drugs is that people who wish to consume them have the same liberty to determine their own well-being as those who consume alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else. In a free society, the presumption must always be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.
This is a dramatic departure from the assumptions shaped the lives of Americans over fifty. Not so long ago it was accepted that “public morality” was a value to be cultivated and protected by state action. People could only be expected to be “good” if some external state authority, aided by the religiously devout, curbed the range of choices available to the public.
Fifty years ago contraceptives were illegal across wide swaths of the country. You couldn’t get a divorce without proving that your spouse was “at fault.”* The state was deeply involved in the regulation of nearly every aspect of sexuality and personal choices. Even today, laws banning gay sex are still on the books in Texas even after the Supreme Court declared them unenforceable. The relics of that age are still around us (sometimes holding public office).
At the same time, public policy fifty years ago had little to say about behavior that impacted those around us outside the realm of family or sexuality. Fifty years ago there was no Environmental Protection Agency. There was no OSHA for workplace safety, no ERISA to guard against pension and insurance fraud, no Voting Rights Act. Race and sex discrimination was still legal in employment and housing. There was no Medicare.
Fifty years ago your government at virtually every level let you get away with an extremely broad range of behaviors harmful to your fellow man from dumping industrial waste in your town pond to pension fraud to sexual harassment. Meanwhile it tightly regulated almost every matter related to sex under the auspices of “public morality.”
We are steadily retreating from government regulation of personal choices that affect no one else while accepting more and more government authority to limit social harm. This is a healthy development that promises to give us a smarter, less intrusive government that better serves its best aims. The faster this process can advance, the better.
*On an interesting side note – The country’s first no-fault divorce scheme was signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969.