Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Book Store Blues

I was doing some Christmas shopping last night at one of the super mega book marts, attempting to secure some non-fiction gifts for some friends and relatives (generally, it's a bad idea to gift fiction, unless you know someones specific tastes), when my mind wandered to Jacob Sullum's Saying Yes: In Defense Of Drug Use. No, I didn't actually find the book in the store, but it popped into my head as I started to think about gifting books that had influenced my life and really changed the way I think about political or philosophical issues.

I wondered, "Can you really change someones mind with a book? Or at some point as we get older do we become so stuck in our ways that we can't really hear any argument that runs contrary to what's been ingrained in our heads?"

I've been solidly libertarian since college, but that doesn't mean my mind has been closed. For all of us, certain truths tend to be more basic and more powerful than others and as a libertarian it would be hard for me to be persuaded by arguments that go against the basic tenants of individual freedom. But on issues on the political fringes and questions ostensibly outside the political realm, I think I prove to be more malleable, or at least open to good, solid arguments.

In the context of last night's train of thought, I realized that Sullum's book really changed my views on drugs. Before reading Saying Yes I was firmly in the anti-prohibitionist camp, but followed the typical "lets deal with drugs as a health issue not a legal issue" line. Saying Yes opened my mind to problem with what Jacob Sullum termed "voodoo pharmacology." The notion that some drugs are so powerful that they essentially rob their users of free will and turn unsuspecting users into out of control addicts. The truth is far more sobering (pardon the pun). As Sullum explains in the book, peoples experiences with drugs vary according to the individuals own body chemistry, the circumstances of their drug use, and their expectations for that drug use. So much of what we're taught, particularly by anti-drug propagandists, is that certain substances are bad in and of themselves. Using both statistical and anecdotal evidence, Sullum makes the point that the so-called dangerous illegal drugs are no different than any other substances we take. They're not bad in and of themselves, it's only what we do with them that is good or bad.

This wasn't an entirely earth shattering revelation for me, as it sort of fit into my pre-existing libertarian view that people are best suited to make decisions for themselves because only you know about what sort of person you are and what your life has entailed. Still though, my mind was opened to a very unpopular sort of argument.

Back to the present where I'm thinking of giving a certain liberal I know Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom for Christmas. I wondered last night (and still wonder) whether you can change someones mind about the benefits of the free market. Perhaps this Christmas will be a test because I think you can change the liberal mindset on this issue.

I think most individuals with anti-market biases don't base their biases in basic economic theory as much as they do distrust of corporate power- and as a libertarian this is somewhat understandable. Part of the problem is convincing those with anti-market beliefs that Enron style corruption and corporate influence on government is as undesirable to free marketers as it is to them. I don't think that part is all that difficult.

The difficult part is convincing those who are opposed to a free market system because of the legal "victims" of market behavior- individuals who lose their jobs following corporate changes or economic shifts and the low salaried employees who struggle to make ends meet while corporate fat cats collect big pay checks. This is where the macro argument that a free market is more effective and maintains a higher standard of living than any other system is extremely important. This is also where Milton Friedman's idea of a negative income tax is helpful. A negative income tax takes material poverty off the table as an objection to free market capitalism as it sets an income floor that every citizen would be guaranteed. Additionally, such a plan supports libertarian notions of individual autonomy and limited government, as convoluted welfare systems and inefficient and costly social service bureaucracies are eliminated. The real point is that yes, you can adopt a free market, limited government ideology without having to give up concern and compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged.

Is such an argument convincing? We'll see. It's a bit further of a stretch than my changing my views on illegal drugs, but maybe it's not so far a stretch as to be unbelievable.


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