Kevin Sabet’s Totalitarian Reading of JS Mill

My friend Diane Goldstein has an excellent takedown of prominent drug warrior Kevin Sabet over at LadyBud Magazine. I excerpt:

In a recent opinion piece Project Sam’s founder Kevin Sabet used John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to posit “Civil Liberties Erode When Drug Use Widens.”

“John Stuart Mill famously wrote:

‘… over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’ … ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’”

But Sabet only uses one part of the paragraph, which takes Mill’s meaning out of context.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.”

Sabet then writes,

“Since marijuana can cause addiction, forcing people to lose control over their own self and in the process inflict harms onto others; its use can decrease overall civil liberties. And since legalization would undoubtedly increase marijuana use in society, we might expect a reduction, not increase, in civil liberties if marijuana was legalized.”

Sabet’s logic is flawed. Mill, in writing On Liberty, focused on how  government wields power to exert their will on an individual. He followed in the tradition of political theorists who tried to define the proper role of government and its effect on personal liberties. Mill’s belief that the state can only restrict an individual’s liberty if it actually harms another is accurate, but what is missing from Sabet’s analysis is this: Sabet links marijuana use, instead of choices and actions by an individual, with why marijuana should remain in the realm of the criminal justice system.

Mill believed the mere potential for harm to others is not a valid reason for social control. The harm must be manifested into action that violates our responsibilities and obligations to society prior to government intervention. He famously used alcohol and opium prohibition as examples and defined the need for intervention only when there was a distinct breach of the law.

Diane makes an important distinction here that I want to flesh out a little further. Potential for harm can’t be a valid reason for social control because there is no limiting principle that we can sensibly apply; in other words, if we are going to say that we will use the power of government to control behavior when there is a potential for harm then there is no limit to the kinds or types of behavior that can be controlled. This is a totalitarian vision; at its logical extreme it says that there is no behavior that cannot be regulated or controlled in the face of omnipresent potential for harm.

Sabet’s world, thus, is one where individual liberty cannot exist. Indeed, this is the focal point of Sabet’s career: to justify the totalitarianism of drug prohibition.

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