Friday, October 29, 2010

Marijuana: No Worse Than Alcohol?

Published 11.2.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

One of the hardest things with any complicated topic is to deal with just one particular slice of the discussion on its own merits. Instead, we usually try to handle the whole pie all at once, which usually leads to handling each bit quite poorly. With that in mind, let’s look at one limited aspect of the debate over legalizing marijuana: the premise that since marijuana is no worse than alcohol, it’s only fair to give it the same legal status as alcohol.

I think most people fight this idea by trying to show how much worse than alcohol marijuana is. Instead, I’ll grant the assertion for argument’s sake and show that even if marijuana advocates are right, there are still good reasons to not treat it the same as alcohol.

As I think anyone will agree, consuming alcohol in large quantities is bad. It’s bad for marriages. It’s bad for children. And it’s bad for simple health concerns. I also think anyone will agree that numerous Americans consume alcohol in precisely such quantities. Thus, I think reasonable people would agree that our current situation with regard to alcohol overuse is undesirable. If only there were some feasible way to fix it, we would want to.

Furthermore, the current efforts to control alcohol are an abject failure. Teenagers have virtually as much access to it as they would like, and this is certainly true of underage college students. Although drunk driving has been the focus of intense legal and media attention, the number of accidents and fatalities in which alcohol is a factor is still absurdly high. And of course alcohol is a major contributor to domestic assault. All of this is common knowledge.

But that’s the point. Even if marijuana is no worse than alcohol, why would we want to permit people to use yet another drug when the problems from alcohol abuse are so obvious?

If I may rephrase the argument a bit uncharitably, marijuana advocates seem to be saying the following: “Even though our society’s handling of alcohol has been abysmal, we think it’s only fair to let us start handling yet another drug just as badly. We know the social and personal problems from marijuana abuse are likely to be similar to those with alcohol, but it’s just not fair that we’re only allowed to have one substance that harms people, families, children, and society.”

Also, keep in mind that unlike alcohol, marijuana is not ordinarily consumed in moderation by anyone. The point of having access to it is to get high, the rough equivalent of being drunk. Nobody smokes a little pot with dinner for the flavor. So the effect of legalizing marijuana would be to replicate only the worst parts of having alcohol be legal.

It seems to me that a smart society, like a smart person, learns from it’s mistakes. And although I haven’t mentioned tobacco, a cursory exploration should conclude virtually the same problems exist there, albeit replacing drunk driving and domestic violence with more mundane issues like lung disease and cancer. We as a society simply don’t handle recreational drugs very well, particularly when it comes to their overuse and use by young people.

Taking that observation in hand, it seems beyond strange to me that some people want to add another similar substance to those already available. And just to reiterate, the single, simple argument we’re dealing with is that of fairness, as in, “It’s unfair to prohibit marijuana since you permit alcohol.”

Unfair? Perhaps.

Unwise? Not so much.

Some analogies may help clarify at this point.

Imagine that I have hired two employees at different times from the same college. Although each looked quite good on paper and in interviews, both turned out to be much less excellent than hoped for. Even though I can’t figure out a practical way to fire either of them, does that mean I’m obligated in fairness to hire the next applicant from that college who applies to me for a job? “But you hired both of them!” “Yes, and look how that’s turned out. I don’t intend to be so na├»ve a third time.” It’s a sadistic philosophy which holds that individuals or societies are beholden to the standard set by their worst decisions for any future choices.

Again, imagine some woman who picks up a man at a bar, dates him for awhile, and then finds herself being abused by him. She breaks up with him and returns to the bar to pick up a new man. She dates him for awhile and finds the same thing happening again. So she ends the relationship. Amazingly, she returns to the bar, but this time, she explains to the man who chats her up how she’s a bit wary of being abused by yet another guy from a bar. “Well, honey, don’t you think you owe me the same opportunity you gave those other two?” Please tell me our public policy advice is better than this.

Yet again, imagine that we as a nation involved ourselves in a failed war such as Vietnam but from which we actually couldn’t extricate ourselves. Then imagine we found ourselves on the verge of another war with similar-seeming difficulties. Would we really believe that consistency required us to engage in it because advocates assure us “it isn’t any worse than Vietnam?” Fool me once, shame on you….

Yet a fourth time, imagine that you have before you a heavy drinker who smokes two packs a day. I don’t imagine you would ever dream of saying to him, “I think you’re being inconsistent. Don’t you realize that marijuana isn’t as bad as either of the drugs you already abuse? And since you already smoke and drink a lot (even though you wish you could quit both), don’t you think for the sake of consistency you should add weed to your unhealthy regimen?” But how is this different from the argument at hand?

“So are you saying you favor prohibition of alcohol and tobacco?”

Nothing of the sort. I’m simply saying that the obvious problems we already have from both of those drugs being legal is the best reason to avoid embracing any more recreational drugs.

Now if you offered me a hypothetical society in which neither alcohol, nor tobacco, nor marijuana was in use and asked me to choose which of the three to permit, I can’t really say what I would pick. But it should be pretty clear we don’t have such a fantasy society in front of us. We live in a real one with a real past and a truly entrenched familiarity with alcohol and tobacco. If we add marijuana to the list, there will be more use of it than there is currently, which means more young users, more occasional users, more regular users, and more impaired driving. Needless to say, none of this will make our country stronger.

It seems to me that a wise society is the kind which learns from its mistakes rather than feeling obliged to repeat them out of a misguided sense of consistency. Our standards should improve because of our prior errors, not be permanently held back because of them. “It’s-no-worse-than” thinking is simply not the guiding light toward great personal or public policy.

Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, I know this is only one particular piece of the marijuana discussion, albeit an ubiquitous one. But I hope at this point you agree that this one invalid argument can safely be discarded. Naturally, we might choose to legalize marijuana for other reasons, but we certainly aren’t obligated to do so on the principle of fairness.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Call Yourself A Firefighter?

Published 10.28.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

Imagine one calm afternoon while you sit on your patio reading a book that your phone rings. On the other end is your 33-year-old firefighter son sounding rather anxious. “Dad,” he says, “I don’t know what to do. We’re out at a fire in the county, and it’s about to reach this guy’s house, but we’ve been told not to stop it because he didn’t pay his service fee. Some of the guys are feeling a little unsettled about all this, and I told them I’d ask you, since you’re the deacon of a church and you always have the right answer for me. What do I do?”

Reply 1: “Well, son, this is a difficult world where people need to learn personal responsibility. I know it seems callous and harsh to let this man’s house burn, but it’s not your fault he didn’t pay. This country is falling apart because everybody wants to be a freeloader, and sometimes you just have to make an example out of someone. If people don’t think they have to pay in advance, no one will pay at all. Don’t worry, God will understand. This is how He deals with us, after all. He only protects us if we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Reply 2: “I understand what you’re struggling with because I know part of the reason you became a firefighter was you thought it was a way to help people and serve the community. But sometimes the only way to be a hero is to obey orders. You can’t just go around doing whatever seems right to you. If everybody acted on their own conscience, there’d be no order in the world. God tells us to obey authority, even if they’re wrong. So you just have to trust in the fact that it’s not your decision to make.”

Reply 3: “How can this even be a question for you? The Bible says that if we refuse to help someone when we can, we don’t have the love of God in us. I know I raised you better than that. If you want to call yourself a firefighter or a Christian, you’d better get off the phone with me and go put out that fire, son.”

So, which answer would you give him?

On September 29th, a group of Tennessee firemen first refused to respond to a fire at the rural home of Gene Cranick and then did show up to sit and to watch the fire consume his house, his possessions, his three dogs, and the family cat. Only when it eventually threatened to spread to a neighboring property did they finally act to put it out. The reason for their neglect? Mr. Cranick hadn’t paid his annual $75 protection money for rural fire service. He says he forgot this year, despite paying in the past, and he had offered to pay the department whatever amount they named if they would only save his home.

Having read a number of commentaries about this outrageous event, I’m torn which is more scandalous: the behavior of the firemen or that our country seems to be full of people who think that anything other than answer 3 is morally or theologically plausible.

See, I can comprehend a city so incompetent that for 20 years it never came up with a simple proposal like, “Rural fire calls will be charged to the property owner at a rate equal to 120% the actual cost up to a maximum of $20,000, secured by a lien against the property if necessary. In lieu of this, $75 may be paid as annual fire service insurance.” But politicians are notoriously stupid. So such a total failure of legislative imagination isn’t inconceivable. The part I can’t wrap my head around is the firefighters refusing to stop the fire, even to the absurd point of sitting idly by watching it burn.

I’ve known a few firemen in my life, and I can’t imagine any of them doing nothing while a fire destroys someone’s home. The ones I’ve known would have told anyone issuing such an evil order to either step aside or be thrown aside while they put out the fire. Most firefighters are heroic and humble, viewing their jobs as nothing more than the duty of a decent citizen. That’s why the contrast between these thugs in firefighting gear sitting on the sidelines refusing to stop destruction and actual firemen rushing headlong into catastrophes like the World Trade Center is so stark.

Our culture treats firemen as heroes, and rightly so. But heroes have to behave heroically in order to deserve the label, and the sort of person who would watch a fire and claim he was only obeying orders is certainly no hero. By definition, he’s not even a firefighter.

I have three young boys, and I simply can’t imagine coming home to tell my wife or my sons that their daddy let a family’s home get destroyed over something as petty as $75 and a ridiculous city policy. Moreover, I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to church the next Sunday and try singing praises to God standing between the guy whose house I watched burn to the ground and the city manager who defended that decision.

“But if we put out this fire, then no one will ever pay their $75, and we won’t have the funding to fight any rural fires.”

Are Americans really this despicable? Or does such a claim end up saying more about the people making it than it does about the real people of rural Tennessee?

“Well, the ones who pay would have to pay more, and the others would just sponge off of them.”

It’s hard to quantify the scope of such cynicism, but here’s an indicator of how misguided it is. The Cranick’s neighbors (you know, the ones who paid their fees) were begging the firemen to fight the fire. Begging!

See, my theory is that Americans are better than the cynics give us credit for. Part of that betterness is that most of us will pay in advance anyway and then rejoice that our contributions made it possible to save someone else’s home.

But the other part of that betterness is that we want to live among people who behave as if we’re a community with values like neighborliness and cooperation. We want to be people who act more nobly than the cynics predict and who can then look each other in the eyes with civic pride. We want to be the Tennesseans who came together after the Nashville floods, not the Tennesseans who stood by indifferently as a man’s life went up in flames.

We want to pay our dues, then go to church with the guy whose house was rescued when he didn’t, the firemen who fought the fire they didn’t get paid for, and the city manager who told them to help a guy even though he didn’t really deserve it. And I want us to sit there, grateful for such wonderful neighbors, listening to a pastor tell us, “Praise be to God that I don’t need to preach a sermon on the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself in this county because we’ve got that one down pat.” That’s the sort of community I want to live in. Truth be told, don’t we all?

As Edmund Burke almost said, “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good firefighters to do nothing.”