Saturday, January 4, 2014

David Brooks v. 21st Amendment

In a recent column, David Brooks writes with melancholy about the spreading decriminalization of marijuana. Some people will read it and nod sympathetically through the whole thing; I did to a degree. Many will still favor decriminalization, even after accepting Brooks’ premise. Perhaps because there is another drug with similar effects that is legal to use for those older than 21.

For a while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank liquor. I have fond memories of us being silly together. Those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.
But then we all moved away from it. We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive; that drinking and driving kills you; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.
We gave it up, first, because we each had embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I took a few shots 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 loser.
We gave it up, second, because one member of our clique became an alcoholic. He may have been the smartest of us, but it was sad to see him sink deeper into his cups.
Third, we developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, but it was repetitive. Most of us figured out that drinking liquor doesn’t make you funnier or more creative (academic studies confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.
Finally, we saw that drinking liquor was not something to be proud of, not something to be admired. We were trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This requires the powers of reason, temperance and self-control—not usually associated with being drunk.
I think we had a sense, which all people should have, that the actions you take change you, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Drinking less gave us a better shot at becoming more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.
So, like many who try liquor, we aged out. We left alcohol behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets buzzed from time to time, but being drunk is not an uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.
We now have a couple states—Michigan and Wisconsin—that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging alcohol use. By making liquor legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One Carnegie study suggests that gross liquor prices could plummet. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Michigan and Wisconsin are producing more users.
The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many shy away from talk about the moral status of alcohol use because that would imply that one sort of life is better than another sort of life.
But 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 we want to encourage? In healthy societies government should 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 drunk.
In ratifying the amendment, citizens of Michigan are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

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