Society

Let's Legalize, Then Tax Vices Like Marijuana and Gambling

| by Reason Foundation

by Nick Gillespie

Over at National Review's excellent group blog (glog?), The Corner, Lisa Schiffren takes exception to my Sunday NY Times piece calling for the legalizing (and hence taxing) of drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

In a post titled "Odd Libertarian Argument," Schiffren concludes:

What I cannot respect is the utterly perverse application of this libertarian argument for legalization in the service of greater taxation powers for the federal government. That is well past too clever by half. Is it not bad enough that the state already reaches its long arm into all manner of what should be private exchanges of labor and cash?...

There are some activities that we all regard as dumb, self-destructive, and costly (smoking tobacco, promiscuity, alcohol abuse), and yet we agree that they should not be criminalized because most people can regulate their own sexuality, drinking, and smoking without undue harm. And it isn't the government's job to impose morality, health, or perfect safety in our lives. Similarly, there are some quite serious vices that we may understand to be inevitable, and, if we don't have to look too closely, fine for those who like that sort of thing. But having the state sanction and profit from them is a step too far.

As I think about it, it is hard to see how Gillespie's argument qualifies as libertarian. It is just plain liberal: Destigmatize activities many consider immoral; give the government greater scope to tax and spend.

Her whole post, which echoes some comments made at Hit & Run, is here.

Maybe it's just me, but for starters, it seems unobjectionable to me that one's person's vice (say, smoking tobacco) is another person's plain old activity. Which in the case of prostitution and gambling (and in very circumscribed circumstances, marijuana for medical purposes) is already legal in various parts of the country and/or in certain modes (casino gambling is A-OK, though not online gambling in the U.S.; go figger).

Here's how my argument qualifies as libertarian: It widens the scope for individuals to choose among legal options. I think that's pretty clear. Given that we live in a country (and individual states) where things are subject to taxation, I hardly think it a loss for freedom to allow the state to tax me for legally buying pot. And if they are going to force a frankly phoney-baloney regulatory regime on pot, just as they do for meat, tobacco, and booze, then that's a price I'm willing to pay. Certainly it beats going to jail for buying pot illegally, but not having to pay 6.5 percent sales tax or whatever.

I'm glad that conservatives are worried about the government's long reach into "into all manner of what should be private exchanges of labor and cash" and I'm happy to work with them in reducing overall tax and regulatory burdens. But if they really believe that "it isn't the government's job to impose morality," then they should be up for the idea of treating consenting adults like adults and increasing the quantity of private—and fully legal—exchanges among adults.

As I noted in a different post earlier today on the same topic, I'm all for moral suasion when it comes to promoting your version of the good life. To say that the state allowing something to take place is the same as sanctioning and promoting it strikes me as way, way off-base. Does allowing freedom of the press mean that the state supports every National Review article ever written (even as it makes money off the revenue generated by NR)?

In any case, when it comes to prostitution (and I think we can agree that whatever problems surround prostitution are only made worse by its illegal status, thereby reducing the legal redress of everyone involved), I'm not arguing the state should start running call-girl operations, any more than the state should stay in the lottery business. As any gambler will tell you, the state offers worse odds and lower payouts than the crappiest craps game at any legit casino. God only knows what they would do to sex work.

And as someone who has lived in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania, I know the difference between privately-owned-but-regulated liquor stores and state-owned-and-operated ones. I feel bad for Keystone Staters who don't have easy access to the Garden State's far greater selection and prices.

Perhaps libertarians and conservatives can agree on this: Let's minimize the number of state-owned enterprises.