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America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ersatz Autonomy

The U.S. Supreme Court, as everyone knows by now, has ruled that the federal government can't interfere with Oregon's so-called assisted-suicide law. I have mixed feelings. I'm happy the feds were told to butt out. But I don't like the Oregon law. It's an example of ersatz autonomy. It doesn't really recognize the right to take one's own life; rather, it empowers doctors to grant permission for and to facilitate a person's suicide if that person petitions his doctor and meets the highly stringent conditions set out in the law. For one thing, another doctor has to concur, and the patient has to be certified as not being mentally ill, which opens a floodgate of reasons to deny a petition. Thomas Szasz pointed out the fraud of assisted-suicide long ago. His book Fatal Freedom goes into the subject in depth. Here's a summary in one of his Freeman columns.


Anthony Gregory said...

Do you really think that the Oregon law is a step in the wrong direction? I seem to remember you having a similar take on medical marijuana. Now, I certainly am sympathetic to Szaszian arguments against the entire Therapeutic State, whose fundamental premises are reinforced by medical marijuana and doctor-assisted suicide. I'd much prefer a free market and free society in medicine and all other matters. And I am always suspicious of sideways "free-market" reforms like vouchers and Social Security "privatization."

However, it seems to me that, for example, the medical marijuana reforms have not further entrenched the Therapeutic State any more than the status quo ante, and that, on the contrary, they have reduced overall state coercion by allowing at least some people to exempt themselves from the wholesale violation of liberty that is imprisonment. Medical marijuana has also made it harder to enforce laws against recreational pot, which is one reason the authorities hate it so much.

There is extreme danger in all these reforms, and I certainly would not throw my own weight primarily behind them. We should always take a principled stand and call for full liberty. But I am not convinced that the coercive state was expanded or enhanced by medical marijuana. If anything, I consider it a slight improvement. Alcohol is also far more regulated than it should be, and recreational drinkers are taxed enormously every time they wish to pursue their legal happiness. The alcohol industry is in bed with the state, and in some states, the governments directly serve as the main dealer of liquor. But is outright prohibition preferable?

Sheldon Richman said...

Anthony, there is a vast difference between removing a prohibition and taxing the product (although I don't approve of taxes) and extending doctors' jurisdiction to cover that product. Under the laws at issue, doctors can prescribe suicide and marijuana to certain people diagnosed as terminally or otherwise severely ill. One has to be properly sick and have a doctor's authorization. That's no step toward people being free to end their own lives or to use drugs without anyone's permission. But it is a step in the bulking up of the Therapeutic State.

Anthony Gregory said...

Do you consider shall-issue concealed carry permits a step in the right direction? Permission from the state is still required for something that fundamentally should not be in the state's domain. In practice, however, the permits are easy to get—just as medical marijuana permission is in California.

Don't get me wrong. I am not enthusiastic about these reforms, and I consider both to be much less problematic than the assisted-suicide law. I also have an open mind on these questions. But I do think that the amount of coercion imposed on a certain group of people in case of medical marijuana has been reduced.

I think that the medical marijuana dispensaries are qualitatively similar to the state liquor stores in some states. Do you see them as a step in the wrong direction? I'm not so far convinced either way.

Sheldon Richman said...

If you needed a doctor's prescription to get a gun permit, I'd make the same objection. By the way, I don't believe gun permitting makes a libertarian point to the public. It simply tells people that government can be creative, so what are those libertarians complaining about?

Glen Whitman said...

I'd rather be able to get X with a doctor's permission than be unable to get X at all. And given that there are many doctors, I don't even have to get the permission of one specific person.

I share your desire for complete liberty, of course. I'd rather not have to get anyone's permission. But having the possibility of getting something is better than total prohibition. For that reason, medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide both strike me as clear and obvious movements toward greater liberty.

Sheldon Richman said...

The big picture is being missed. By requiring a doctor's prescription, these laws expand the power of the Therapeutic State and its deputies. That's a step away from individual liberty, even if people can have thing in question. In terms of educating the public about the need for decriminalization, it's a bad move because it teaches people that we don't need to decrimininalize. The government has already assured that those who "need" whatever it is are getting it, right? It is also likely that nonapproved users or would-be self-killers will face intensified repression as the state tries to show that its program doesn't amount to decrimininalization.

Sheldon Richman said...

Some additional comments:

We live smack-dab in the middle of a prescription regime. It's a bad inheritance. While I don't accept marijuana by prescription, I would never say the government should prohibit drugs that today are available only by prescription. I do my best to publicize the view that the prescription system should be scrapped. But that's a reason why I don't like medical marijuana: it sounds like an endorsement of prescriptions. Further, by supporting medical marijuana, we appear to endorse a system in which the government determines what is and is not medicine, what is and is not disease, and who is and is not a patient. I can't let myself even appear to sanction such a system.

Having marijuana defined as a medical issue cannot be an advance for individual freedom.

The medical marijuana issue and the assisted-suicide issue are essentially the same: access to drugs.

If there were free access to lethal drugs, assisted-suicide would be a non-issue. As Szasz says, if a person buys a gun and shoots himself, we don't call it "gun-dealer-assisted suicide." As I like to say, if someone jumps off a building and kills himself, is it architect-assisted suicide? I don't think so.

Finally, I can't stress enough the danger that the state will be watching more closely for unapproved users and "easy" doctors. Look how pain-management doctors are persecuted--and jailed. So the level of repression for those people could surely increase--because of medical marijuana. Should libertarians be comfortable with that?