Drugs, Morality, The Law & Peter Hitchens

I expect I have more time for Peter Hitchens than many libertarians.  Credit where credit’s due, I say; the man has been on the right side of a great many issues over the last few years, such as the defence of habeas corpus, jury trials and other hard-won limitations on state power; he has been resolutely against ID cards and other ‘Big Brother’ measures; and he has denounced the foreign military adventurism of this and the last government with greater logic and principle than the likes of George Galloway and the far left. So far, so good. This is the part of the journey which the libertarian shares with the Burkean conservative. That journey does however start and end in different places.

Nothing is more indicative of this than Hitchens’ lone knight attack on the state’s failure to prosecute a war on drugs.  Perhaps this is not a solitary tilt, but Peter breaks away and makes his primary targets cannabis, not crack or heroin, and users, rather than suppliers. Judged solely as a strategy to win the drug war, his logic may well be correct. With regard to the latter target, he is identifying the demand, not the supply. If the demand could be curtailed, through draconian law enforcement, then the supply ceases to be problematic.  As for cannabis, perhaps it is the generally-held view that it is not harmful, and that it is tolerated by a large part of society, which saps the moral fibre of those required to enforce the prohibitions.  Therefore, Hitchens’ has set himself the task of presenting the case that cannabis is far from harmless, most notably with regard to the evidence of a link to mental illness, but above all his denunciation of drug use is on the grounds of immorality.

Let us accept this latter charge for the moment, and define drug use as immoral. Without wishing to fully make the case, I will suggest that this could be based on drugs as a deliverer of pleasure, where no pleasure has been earned. Without drugs, we must strive to achieve goals, and when we do so, then we feel happiness. We may of course feel happiness due to good fortune, but even in this case, the happiness derives from a rational appraisal of our situation. The drive to improve our situation is the basis of all rational human action, but with drugs, no such effort is required, and pleasure can be attained notwithstanding the absence of the conditions a rational mind would see as satisfactory. The junky may be living in squalor, but feels on top of the world, at least for a while.   The drug user melts away the lack of satisfaction in his everyday life, and dissipates his motivation to better himself, and thereby wastes his talent and fritters away his life.

Furthermore, a drug abuser can cause a great deal of mental anguish to his family and friends, who see him harming himself but they cannot stop him, and upon whom he makes himself a burden, incapable of supportinghimself, and by extension of supporting others, for whom he may be obligated to support.  How is this wastrel’s life not immoral?

So, as before, let us accept without further quibble, that drug-taking is immoral. The question is; so what? That does not make it a crime. To be a crime, there is a higher bar to jump; namely that you have committed an act which aggressed against someone else’s physical person or property, or that you threatened to do so. It’s not a crime to give yourself over to cheap pleasure, and no matter how harmful that may be, if you do it to yourself, if it an act of informed consent, then no crime has taken place.

Back from this likely come two ripostes. The first will be the link between other crimes and drug use, i.e., crimes committed under the influence of drugs or the influence of a drug addiction.  This becomes irrelevant, if the actual, proper crime is properly dealt with. It is this failure of the criminal justice system to punish actual, proper crimes which needs addressing. The same story plays out over and over again:

Criminal: I’m sorry for the string of burglaries, I was out of my head at the time, the drugs made me do it, but I’m trying to clean myself up now.

Judge: That’s very brave of you to face up to your issues. You know, prison doesn’t work anyway, so I’m going to give you another chance.

When judges stop treating a claimed drug addiction as a mitigation, then criminals will stop claiming it is. This isn’t to say that there aren’t criminals with drug habits which would benefit from treatment, but it should be a separate matter to the necessity to punish them for their crimes, and seek restitution for their victims. Contrary to what the judiciary may believe, crimes like robbery and burglary are very serious, not least because everyone has a right to defend themselves and their property even unto death.  How more serious could something be? The law should recognise this and treat such vile acts accordingly.  But what equivalence can be found between the act of house-breaking or putting a knife to someone’s ribs and demanding their money when compared to someone taking a pill or smoking a joint?

I’ll give you a choice of neighbours; one is in his parlour, smoking himself a rung up the ladder to serenity; the other is breaking down your kitchen door and plundering your possessions.  There’s not even a choice. The first, you don’t even know about it, except by perhaps a faraway smell.  The second, you will know about it. It will change your life, at least in the short time as you patch your place up, cancel everything, get the door fixed etc.  It may make you hate the place you live. You may be coming home for months to come, nervous of what you will find. A weak parry of this point could be; it’s probably the same neighbour! The guy smoking the drugs is most likely the same one who robs you. The answer is above; punish the real crime.

What, then of the second moral argument? Have I not admitted that drug abuse does indeed harm others, such as the family and friends of the abuser? Here, the key word is ‘harm’.  It does not at all mutilate the English language to say that a drug abuser harms his family, but when we are dealing with the law, we must be clear in our definitions.  There are degrees of harm.  If the ‘harm’ we are considering comprises a criminal act of violence or theft, or perhaps in the case of a drug-addled parent, one of child neglect, then we have the laws already written expressly to deal with such occurrences. But if we are talking only of the mental anguish that is inflicted on caring relatives, this alone, immoral though it is, is not enough to constitute a criminal offence.

This in no way belittles the reality of the suffering families of drug addicts, but drug abuse is just one on a list of things that if you do them it may cause your family anguish. We can add alcohol for a start, and gambling. We could add adultery and divorce. We could even add converting to another religion, or terrifying your mother by buying a motorbike. They can be dangerous too.

So, surely we all agree that there is a limit below which causing mental anguish ceases to be a matter for the law.  I say; let that be the limit already given, by the ordinary criminal laws against violence and theft.

All that aside, is Peter right about cannabis being so very dangerous? I certainly wouldn’t say it was harmless, but unlike heroin, cocaine and alcohol, you can’t take too much and die. Yes, you may fall off a balcony, but you’d have to eat your own body-weight to risk overdose.

The link to mental illness seems to be closely linked to a particular type of cannabis, high-strength grass, broadly called ‘skunk’.  It crops up in the politician’s cliché, about smoking once when they were a student, but they didn’t like it and they didn’t get stoned, but this new stuff the kids are smoking nowadays is something else entirely.  Indeed it is different, but if anyone claims you couldn’t get high in the ‘70s and ‘80s smoking Moroccan black , they’re lying.  The effects of cannabis, the same as with alcohol, depend on the dose.

Prohibition led to a higher consumption of stronger  alcohol over the weaker kind .  If you’re going to smuggle a barrel of beer, it might as well be whiskey. The same applies now to cannabis, and skunk is its ‘bathtub gin’, grown fast and harvested early. This is not a product marketed on its delicacy, but the power of its punch.  Due to the way it’s grown and cut, a certain chemical preponderates, which would not be the case if the plant was allowed longer to mature, and it is this chemical balance which I believe is most responsible for the negative effects on mental health observed in many people.  But who would buy ‘bathtub gin’ if a decent bottle from a distillery of repute was readily available instead? In a legal market, people would not be buying solely for concentration and quantity, but for quality.  On these grounds, the worst of the grass would disappear.

And one final thing must be said for cannabis; that there is no more versatile plant ever cultivated by man.  It can be used to make paper better than wood-pulp; textiles stronger than cotton; plastics, fuel, cooking oil; the seeds make high-protein food, and it has medicinal uses which have been practiced for centuries.  Furthermore, the plant is basically a weed, and will grow with very little assistance, needing far less fertiliser and pesticide than cotton, it counters soil erosion, and you can smoke it and get high.  I defy any God-fearing man, as Mr Hitchens is, to refute that this is a gift from our Creator. If that merely scalps the air, let him consider, drawing upon the naval tradition which runs in his blood , if I am not mistaken, how would this island’s navy had fared without its hempen ropes and sails (and a lash and bottle o’ rum)?For all these reasons, any law prohibiting such a plant is ridiculous, nonsensical, even blasphemous!

None of the above applies to crystal meth, for which we must fall back to earlier arguments.

Bitcoin: a protocol for the distributed maintenance of a ledger?

When I finally found my way to Brian Micklethwait’s Pimlico pad on Friday evening I was in for a few surprises. The biggest visual surprise was Brian’s amazing collection of books and CD’s. The amount knowledge there, in one home, is staggering. I enjoyed running my eyes over the titles and trying to notice whole areas of expertise I might have missed out on. The real surprise was that I had arrived thinking I was to hear about a revolutionary communications protocol for the distribution of digital money. I was going to get a talk about the minutiae of digital accounting.

I was also pleasantly surprised to be joined by several of Brian’s Samizdata colleagues, who’s excellent work over many years got me, and no doubt countless others, into libertarianism and so it was an honour to meet them. Brian’s chief guest, Frank Braun was an IT security professional with an interest, and a small income stream, in Bitcoin and was there to explain how it worked and what the advantages were for freedom loving libertarians. Frank explained that he is a fan of “freedom technology” because rather than changing a culture to value and understand freedom, a difficult and uncertain process, building a new peice of technology is a smaller problem with a faster and more certain pay off. If you are reading this thinking you have found the software hacker you are looking for, move along, but Frank was merely an admirer of the work of pseodonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin.

The following explaination is based on my notes and is therefore mostly pointless, I’m sure better explanations exist, but I am interested in sharing it as a snapshot of my understanding. If I’m seriously wrong, it would help if you left a comment. If I’m right then hopefully there is some value in the way I explain it.

The major feature of the Bitcoin protocol is to effect transfers of wealth, but it’s primary domain object – the primary noun of importance in the system – is not coins or vouchers but an accounting ledger. The maintenance of that shared public record is the primary task and the competitive challenge addressed by the participating nodes, the computer systems owned by users and service providers who take part. It’s like one big trackerless BitTorrent, a network with no centre and no boundaries, co-operating to store copies of some data to which new blocks are conststantly added. The content of these blocks, the ledger, is not something you would be familiar with. I understood it by analogy: if the Dollar were only handled by a single Federal bank, and there was no cash, then the Fed would need to record the transactions of every US citizen and every other user of the currency in perfect detail. As Frank put it, trying to do something illicit in such as system would be “dumb”. This perfect transparency was the opposite of what I had understood to be the point of digital money and of Bitcoin.

Of course, a degree of privacy is acheived by the use of pseudonymous cryptographic identities, and your privacy is dependant on how much personal data gets linked your digital fingerprint. Your public key is your bank account and your bank balance is merely the sum of the values of every transaction involving that public key. As you might have computed, your private key is your means of accessing your money.

In economic terms Bitcoin is non-State fiat money, and the unit for numeric values in the ledger. From the users perspective, the advantages were given as:

  • The system is able to clear transactions (store them in a ledger-block) within 20 to 30 minutes
  • Transactions are reliable, businesses do not suffer the expense or risk of payments being charged back by the credit card company.
  • It is not possible to have your account frozen.
  • Possible to work under a pseudonym.

The disadvantages, as I touched on above are:

  • No anonymity, flows of money can be traced and tracked.
  • (I got the impression later that in order to take part, you are forced to download enough data to calculate every participants bank balance, illustrating how little privacy there is)
  • Very few tax implications, that is, you should expect to be taxed.
  • Somewhat smaller risks for people who want to protect their earnings from tax enforcement, since there is no current enforcement.
  • Needing to hold state fiat money to pay state taxes mean you cannot trade soley in Bitcoin.

Despite the high degree of transparency the “eBay for drugs” known as Silk Road appears to be the killer app. Bitcoin reached notoriety when a US senator triggered the Streisland effect for Slik Road by talking to the media about shutting Silk Road down. Silk Road was an existing site for traders that lacked a payment system, and whcih adopted Bitcoin.

The combination of Silk Road and Bitcoin has already made drug users safer and more free. Allowing them to easily purchase drugs and have them shipped in the mail rather than visiting dark urban corners.

Braun spoke about how the Governemnt might choose to attack Bitcoin:

  • Attacking the exchanges affecting people’s ability to buy into and out of Bitcoin. This is important as the price of Bitcoins is very unstable and holding Bitcoins long term amounts to currency speculation.
  • Attacking the pricing, so that people loose faith in the currency, e.g. by conducting a pump and dump in which large volumes are bought until the exchange rates rise then are sold again forcing a sudden price drop.
  • Braun provided an anecdote regarding the analogous EGold system which had a central technical and legal point of failure. The EGold system was prosecuted and shut down.
  • Similarly, IceGold the eGold broker shut down when threats of prosecution were made against the founder, essentially extending “Process as punishment” to “Process as threat”.
  • Technical attacks could be addressed at the “Bootstrapping” phase or via deep packet inspection, though these were not covered in depth as the main threat is clearly to exchanges.

Frank identified some important lessons for the development of future freedom technologies:

  • People will be less obedient of Government when they have practical options available that flout authority.
  • The technology’s originator stayed anonymous which was a smart move for him and for the network. Counter example: Julian Assange.
  • Very few people were needed to affect change, in this case they created a $60m economy.

© IK

We went on to discuss market opportunities for Bitcoin in replacing Hawala and Western Union money transfer systems and whether Bitcoin might remain a “wholesale” form of money with retail users accessing it via human contact points. We also identified potential business opportunities for individuals setting themselves up as Bureau de Change in retail settings e.g. at the shop where you get phones unlocked.

I want to end with Bitcoin’s monetary policy. Large chunks of the libertarian community are motivated by one primary economic problem caused by the states domination of currency: inflation. Currently hovering around 5%, depending on your definition, inflation is the process of granting invented “fiat” money to banks and other major instutions and deliberately increasing the number of units in circulation and devaluing the currency. The effect on savers, which I don’t need to explain here, is that they are ripped off at a rate of 5% per year, and the effect over time is compounded year on year in a sick mockery of compound interest. That this deliberate policy is morally repugnant is an excercise in subtle understatement.

Bitcoin is a new system, and it is a type of fiat money whose value, like state fiat money, does not relate to anything real. It could collapse tomorrow. But it is a currency that directly protects people from inflation – in fact Bitcoin is limited by a resilient technical and democratic cap of just 21 million units – ever.

We can but dream

At the 2015 election, there is a hung parliament, with the Tories in a minority and desperately needing the five new Libertarian MPs to join them in a coalition.   We’re offered three bills during the fixed five-year term in exchange for taking a coalition whip.  What realistic three bills would you demand?  Go too far, and the Tories will probably go back to the country for another election and you’ll get nothing.

Here are mine:


The Victimless Crime Bill

Actions by individuals can not be crimes where the only persons harmed are the person performing the action or other freely consenting adults. This would have the effect of legalising, among other things, drug taking and supply, prostitution, fighting between consenting parties (although breach of the peace remains), all sexual practices, almost all pornography, voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The Peace Bill

No UK troops to ever be committed to active service or peacekeeping/humanitarian exercises anywhere in the world unless there is independent evidence (composition of suitable committee to be decided) of a direct and immediate threat to UK territory.

The Welfare Reform Bill

Levels of all welfare payments to be frozen with immediate effect and all benefits to be reduced each year by 5% of their present levels, meaning they’ll be gone in 20 years.  The exception is current state pensions which will remain index linked, but those not yet old enough to take a pension will have their future state pensions reduced by 2.5 percentage points for every year they have left between now and retirement.  In exchange, levels of income tax will be reduced (paid for by reducing the welfare bill and armed forces bill) on a sliding scale depending on age.  The younger you are the bigger tax rebate you get, because you’ll be getting no pension from the state at the end.

Drawing threads together

Have you noticed how the recent riots have confirmed everyone in their previous opinions? Whether you be leftwing or rightwing, liberal or libertarian, whoever and whatever you previously blamed for the decline and fall of this nation, the riots have provided the perfect example.

So, in one way, the riots have changed very little. What it has done, though, is to provide Cameron’s clique with a narrative back-drop. As a politician, he knows this kind of thing is the making or the breaking of his premiership. He’ll be thinking of Churchill. His mind will keep looping round to: Cometh the hour, cometh the man. There’s been a breakdown in political order, and Cameron and gang, the same as rival factions, are going to try to grab whatever they can.

Where should the libertarians be in this political looting spree? I would say, within this metaphor, we should be guarding our shops, armed to the teeth, in any case keeping out of it. Let us not be caught up with the mob.

The rightwing’s diagnosis of society’s ills is certainly accurate, up to a point. However, the course of treatment they recommend will only make matters worse. It is merely a change of heavy medication. The overbearing, authoritarian pill favoured by conservatives may be slightly more palatable, insofar as it is based on ‘traditional values’, rather than leftist quackery, but, and this is important, it will not work.

Libertarians seek a society based on liberty. We may have found ourselves in the same trenches as conservatives in recent times, fighting off the waves of fabian beserkers, but this should not blind us to the fundamental difference in outlook between libertarians and conservatives. We do indeed agree about many things, but not for the same reasons. If we both agree about a particular traditional liberty, such as habeas corpus, they do so because it’s traditional, we do so because we believe it’s right.

What about the leftwingers? Should we or can we make common cause with them? I would answer; yes, whenever possible. We certainly should not disguise our disagreements where they exist, but if the rightwing brain cell has closed down, and all it is thinking of is how to bring in National Service and teach respect for authority, give the left it’s due – at least they can see the inherent error with such notions, (at least as long as they’re not running the programme).

Surely the message we should be giving is the message we always give: liberty is the answer. Let the individual citizens be empowered, not the state machinery. With the government tilting to the right, there is no better time to confront leftwingers with the error of supporting the big government, interventionist, interfering state model they generally call for.

My one concret proposal: Let us push for drug legalisation. There’s no time like the present. The alternative we are faced with is a massive crackdown. The tinpot government have correctly identified the part played by the illegal drug trade in the street gang subculture, but cannot draw the rational conclusion to remove the trade from the hands of hoodlums, especially not in the midst of a hang ’em, flog ’em backlash. However, we must seek positive outcomes from the destruction of the riots, and drug legalisation could provide a rallying point for those resisting the rightwing lurch.