Recently, both Hillary and Bill Clinton have drawn media attention for revising their respective positions on drug legalisation. Both were against it when Bill was in the Oval Office in the 1990s; the Clinton administration reportedly even tried to punish doctors just for discussing the medical benefits of marijuana with their patients. And when Hillary ran for president in 2008, she was still against legalising pot.
But now, both have made comments showing they are ‘open to reform’. Last month, On NBC’s Meet the Press, Bill declared that we should leave drug legalisation ‘to the states … if the state wants to try it, they can. And then they will be able to see what happens.’ On her book tour last month, Hillary took a similar approach, arguing that, on this issue, the states are the ‘laboratory of democracy’. The legalisation of the recreational use of marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington can be seen as an experiment, and Hillary wants to ‘wait and see what the evidence is.’
Supporters of drug legalisation jumped on the Clintons’ change of tune. Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, declared that Hillary’s ‘openness to letting states proceed with implementing outright marijuana legalization shows just how far the politics of this issue have shifted since the 90s ….’ He observed, rightly, that ‘whereas this issue was once seen as a political third rail, there’s no question it has now emerged into the mainstream.’
Hillary’s (and Bill’s) shift is, of course, disappointing and hypocritical. For instance, it is almost laughable to hear Democrats – who usually extol the virtues of federal intervention – defend the ‘freedom’ of states to ‘experiment’.
But was this shift inevitable? Does it merely reflect the attempt of two shrewd politicians – who are determined not to lead, but to rise (again) to power – to conform to the changing attitudes of ordinary Americans?
Certainly the national conversation on drugs is changing. It is legal now to use marijuana for medicinal purposes in 23 states, and this is bound to remove some of the cultural taboos associated with its recreational use.
But, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, the shift in American attitudes towards drugs is a result of more than this. Emily Ekins argues that there is a broader movement toward more socially liberal attitudes in America, especially among the ‘millennial’ generation – those born between the early 80s and the early 2000s. 57 per cent of this generation thinks that recreational marijuana should be legalised. And this shift is not just taking place on the Left. One in four millennial Republicans identify themselves as ‘socially liberal’.
Driving this shift, of course, is the now ubiquitous – but, if I may, poorly understood – language of ‘choice’ and ‘personal autonomy.’ Ekins tells us that a defining characteristic of millennials is that they ‘don’t like to be nannied’. They opt for ‘personal choice rather than government regulation’. They have ‘grown up in a world of fast-paced technological change’ and therefore, ‘they have become accustomed to having lots of choices and being able to personalise things, and this has led them to value individual autonomy. We see that these experiences have impacted their political attitudes.’
So, the libertarians have claimed the millennial generation for themselves. Drug legalisation is a done deal for the future, because young people want ‘autonomy’, not a ‘nanny state’.
Libertarians should be ashamed of this deceptive use of language. They complain about the nanny state, but in reality it is only a nanny state that will ‘clean up’ the mess created by drug legalisation.
There are, of course, two sides to the nanny state. One side takes away our freedom by telling us what to do. The other side takes away our freedom by taking away our responsibilities, by taking care of us from ‘cradle to grave’. And the two go hand in hand.
This is why liberals do not have the same concerns with drug legalisation as conservatives. Conservatives, looking at the facts, argue that drug use leads to family breakdown, mental health problems, and irresponsible – often dangerous – behaviour. This means that drug users will be less able to provide for their families and properly parent their children. And this, in turn, means a bigger, stronger government, that redistributes more wealth, has less respect for private property, and starts to see itself in loco parentis for the upcoming generation.
As a conservative, this state of affairs fills me with horror. But a liberal, filled with what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott described as the ‘dream’ of a compassionate and omniscient state, and the heady prospect of power, is happy with the expansion of the welfare state (‘dreaming and ruling generates tyranny’, he said). So, let them ‘experiment’; the state will catch them, and ‘nanny’ them, when they fall.
This is why libertarians, in order to stay true to their abhorrence of the nanny state, really cannot advocate drug legalisation. They would have to dismantle the welfare state first. And something tells me that although the political will for certain libertarian ideas may be increasing, the same cannot be said for the elimination of the welfare state.
There was a time when conservatives and libertarians fought together for limited government. And then, there was a time when it all went wrong. That time is now. If I was a libertarian, I would be very concerned if big-government Democrats like the Clintons suddenly came to my side.