The Standing Invitation

Harris and Chomsky On Drugs

with 4 comments

One of the roles of government is to prohibit and enforce the prohibition of activities that reproducibly result in a lowering of the populace’s quality of life. Governments insist that people surrender certain freedoms in the name of the greater good: the freedom not to bash people over the head with mallets, for example.

The illegality of an act should be proportional to its harmfulness (to society, that is; to you is another matter). While I can understand and condone banning the sale of crack cocaine because it reproducibly creates a huge amount of misery and suffering, it is difficult to see why the government bans cannabis ­­– particularly when tobacco, a much deadlier poison, is sold quite legally. I have recently read two different explanations of this strange inversion. One is by the fascinating if slightly scary writer Sam Harris; the other is by Noam Chomsky.

Harris’s contention is that the enemy is religion. Many drugs, he says, allow one  to experience states of extreme bliss and personal fulfilment, often with no damaging side-effects and in the privacy of one’s own home. There should be no harm in that. But religion wants the monopoly on spiritual experiences, and sees drugs as being unwelcome competition. Drugs are deemed wicked for their positive aspects, for their ability to make you happy or alter the way you see the world; their harmfulness is not even considered.

Chomsky’s idea is, if anything, even more cynical. The crucial difference between tobacco and marijuana, he says, is that tobacco is difficult to grow. Weed is a weed: you can grow it in your back garden. Big businesses have no interest in its legalisation because it would give them no scarcity power – nobody would profit from it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a difficult crop, requiring a substantial investment of technology and capital. A nation’s tobacco industry can be owned in the way a national marijuana industry could never be, and businesses can make huge amounts of money from monopolising it. It will stay legal, in spite of its harmfulness, because it pays.

I don’t know which of these two theories I like most, or even if either of them comes close to the truth. But until the illegality of what substances you choose ingest correlates with the damage it does to people around you, I will be suspicious of the motives of those who tell you what you can and cannot do.

Governments have the power to stop people doing things. Sometimes this power is used wisely and fairly; but often it is not. Whenever a government asks you to surrender one of your freedoms, it’s worth thinking about who benefits from it. And if it’s not you, it’s time to start worrying.



Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power, p49.

Sam Harris ­– The End of Faith, also his blog post:


Written by The S I

July 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Ah, but where does personal liberty end and society begin? Couldn’t it reasonably be argued that that rather enjoyable, but personally damaging, activity you partake of is not a serious and sad waste of an individual who could otherwise contribute much more to society?

    The Futility Monster

    July 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    • I would argue that individuals enjoying themselves in wasteful and pointless ways are the point of society. Society is for allowing people to have harmless fun, in more complicated and unusual ways than hermits living in caves could organise. A hermit could never bungee jump: it takes a huge cooperative enterprise including elastic manufacturers to make this pointless but exciting form of fun possible.

      As for not contributing, so be it: let them benefit less from the luxuries society has to offer. It’s a trade-off between the amount of fun you can have and how hard you have to work to get it.

      The S I

      July 23, 2011 at 10:28 am

      • Very individualistic… but not very fair, I would argue.

        The Futility Monster

        July 23, 2011 at 11:04 pm

      • Well, this is tricky territory – something I’d love to write more about in another post. But confining the argument to the relative legality of tobacco and marijuana, if we’re talking about wasted contribution to society, tobacco surely reigns supreme – it’s hard to contribute to society when you’re dead.

        The S I

        July 23, 2011 at 11:31 pm

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