Tag Archives: Marijuana

Replace and defend

Deep Insights

A follow up on David Brooks’ piece on the inadvisability of marijuana legalization.  Perhaps you’ll recall that Brooks told a very personal tale of his own adolescent adventure with marijuana.  TL;DR: marijuana should remain illegal (also because of nature and the arts). A charitable reading of this argument would go thusly: Brooks himself continues to pull tubes, with the consequence being that his arguments are terrible, so don’t legalize marijuana, lest you end up a bumbling fool like David Brooks.  He kind of says as much:

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

I’m still embarrassed for him.  In any case, rushing to his defense is the allegedly unstoned Reihan Salam, of the National Review (via Lawyers, Guns, and Money).  His argument is the perfect iron man.

The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

This fellow has just made up an entirely different argument: Brooks did not argue for regulation of marijuana.  Nor, in fact, does his column even suggest this.  Nor would any sane (non stoned libertarian) argue for unregulated legalization.  Just for reference, here’s how the obviously stoned David Brooks characterizes legalization:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

Yet, according to Salam, Brooks is not arguing against legalization.  So this is a beautiful example of argument defense by complete replacement: when the argument you need to defend really sucks, no matter: replace it with a completely different argument, then accuse your opponents of straw manning.  It’s a double fallacy.

Question for the readership then: must the iron man always involve a straw man?  Seems like it might.  In strengthening an argument beyond what it deserves, I distort the critics’ view of the argument as weak.

David Brooks has taken it easy for all of us sinners

Our dystopian future

John Holbo at Crooked Timber reads David Brooks’ recent column on marijuana and has a request we’ve had for a long time:

Why is this interesting? I’ve said it before, and this column is a good example.In US politics, the conservative imagination is so loopily half-utopian. Prominent liberal pundits, by contrast, don’t go in for this sort of half-baked (no pun intended!) goofiness. (Maybe that’s why they don’t get invited onto the Sunday morning shows. They are less entertaining.) But maybe this is just my liberal bias. A challenge for our conservatives readers. Can you provide examples of liberal pundits who are as prominent as Brooks, who are as goofy as Brooks?That is, they defend some concrete policy proposal by sort of half-flying off to some vague Cloud Cuckooland, based on principles they would never seriously propose ratifying in the real world, because they obviously don’t even believe those principles?

As an empirical matter, I think Holbo is right on the money.  We have, on the one hand, a very vibrant argumentative culture in the United States; you don’t have to go very far to find vigorous dialectical exchanges on any number of topics (see, the Internet).  At the same time, however, this culture is dominated by the likes of Brooks (and Kathleen Parker).

Brooks, the particular case at hand, argues the following:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

Only to conclude:

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Skipping the obvious rejoinder of the legality of alchohol and workahol, smoking weed was good for Brooks, morally good actually (it deepened his friendships, didn’t it?), but it ought to be illegal for others (with, I imagine, all of the consequences of being illegal–jail, fines, war on drugs, etc.) because nature and the arts are better.  I think you’d have to be high to cite those two particular examples of alternatives to weed.  And so maybe we’re reading this all wrong.  Brooks is enacting his argument against  legal weed by getting high before writing it.