This is another installment of the differences between Conservative thought and Libertarian thought. One of the big weak points that libertarians have is their stance on drugs and sex and various other vices. Libertarians have been too vocal about those issues for political expediency, and opponents have capitalized on this quite frequently, throwing in a question about drug laws or decency laws and grabbing the sound bite version of the answer. The answer always spells doom for any garnering of support from the conservative camp.
I certainly understand the reaction of the conservative crowd. On the surface, supporting the right of someone to do harmful drugs or engage in lewd behavior is counter-intuitive to a conservative culture, where such things are considered wrong and are, at the very least, taboo subjects, things to keep hidden. So, an in-your-face philosophical stance of legalization of drugs and other vices creates a negative reaction.
I understand the reasoning as well. Bad behavior is bad for a whole society and culture. I do not argue with the fact that good family structure and loving relationships are better than unloving or uncaring environments or even caring, but limited environments where a single parent does their best but is spread too thin. I do not argue with the fact that rampant drug use or alcohol abuse or gambling or any of a host of other vices is not a good culture, not a good lifestyle. It is bad for the individual, and groups of such individuals can be a real problem. The problem is, just because something is bad does not mean it should be illegal. Here is why:
“For the Greater Good” is a poor argument:
At least for a conservative to use. Trying to do what is best for “society” is the primary argument used to support socialism and various other wealth redistribution schemes. If the individual has the right to do with his or her property as he or she sees fit without regard for society as a whole (or at least, without legally mandated regard) then how is it that they cannot do what they wish with, or to, themselves? My body is my own, my choices of lifestyle are my own. These things are individual choice, their effect on society is not my responsibility. If I have such a duty, if societal impact should be legally managed, if laws can be made to affect behavior because of how that behavior impacts society, then they can certainly be made concerning redistribution of wealth. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have your property free from legal interference, yet have your behavior subject to laws. Laws to prevent you from harming another are fine, but laws preventing you from self harm? No, that is a contradiction.
Dependency is bad, mkay?
The primary reason for conservatives turning to the law to improve society is that they have become dependent on government. Dependency is generally due to laziness (not wanting to do the work or take responsibility yourself) or due to hopelessness (believing you have no power as an individual) or fear (believing that a problem is so extreme that it is overwhelming and must be fixed, and fixed quickly, and in widespread fashion) or ignorance (not knowing how to deal with an issue themselves). It does not really matter the cause, dependency like that is a problem. It reinforces the idea that the individual is weak, and it always leads to handing over what power you do have as an individual to those who already wield too much power as it is. Furthermore, it causes society to look to the government to be their moral guide, obviously that is a bad idea. Turning to others to fix your problems, especially turning to the government for such things, is far worse for society than the vices that caused the concerns to start with.
Government stinks at fixing things.
Even if you still think morality cannot be handled through influence and individual action, you should at least recognize that government is not an effective means to accomplish your goal. The most famous example showing this to be true is the epic failure that was prohibition. Prohibition did not have the intended results. Its goal was to stop people from drinking alcohol, for the good of society and the individuals in it. It resulted in very little reduction of drinking, criminalizing hundreds of thousands of people who continued drinking, driving alcohol underground where it became more dangerous and unhealthy than before, and more easily abused, essentially founding organized crime, creating huge gangs and illegal empires, taking freedom away from people, and removing a huge amount of money from the open economy into the black market. There was not a single good effect and a host of bad ones. Even if you do not agree that government is incompetent in general with most things, you should at least see that, regardless of how it is done, making immoral things illegal will not have the desired effect. The war on drugs is a similar story, millions wasted, lives destroyed, crime created and fostered, and very little real success. It is a farce at best, yet it continues.
Theocracy is bad too.
As we have already discussed in the Separation of Church and State article, theocracy is a bad thing. The effects on society, the effects on freedom, and the consolidation of power are just too atrocious to support any sort of legal code based solely on morality. Some level of decency laws on a local level might have to be in place as the society weans itself off of governmental dependency, but in the end morality and its prevalence in society is the responsibility of the individuals that make up that society.
Hearts do not change from legal pressure. People do not change from the outside. You can drive things underground, make the hidden, but they are still there. The path to change is through education and communication. It is through influence and leading by example. It is through showing the benefits and success and positive results of a moral life. It is by reaching out to help those hurt by their choices, show love, but show tough love when it is needed. It is by compassion, not judgement, that bad behavior can be driven out of society. Control of others, use of force, legal or otherwise, to make them do as you wish is evil. Evil does not do well as a means to get rid of evil. It is at best a contradiction, and at worst a demonstration of greater evil than that which the controller is trying to stop.
In other words, if it harms no one else, if all involved are consenting adults, then there is no real victim. There are only people making bad choices. There should be no law against this. No legal consequence. If the thing is so bad, consequences will already exist. Freedom is too important to throw away in the name of morality or greater good, especially since the goals sought in removing that freedom will never be accomplished. This is the reason for social freedom and the legalization of vices. It is not a disagreement that these things are bad. It is not a welcoming of these things. In fact, in cases like prohibition where the restriction was removed, very little increase was seen in drinking. Removal of drug laws would very likely have similar effect. Where things are getting bad is in our culture. We need to be the change we want to see, we need to reach out rather than lash out. Teach good choices, show how and why those choices are better. That is the path to reach the goal you seek. It is a harder, slower road, but nothing worth doing is easy, and nothing with lasting effect is done quickly.