Memo to the Movement: Initiating Force Is Out, Even When You Think It's a Good Idea

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January 14, 2008

In Could We Ever Justify Restraining Someone From Doing Drugs? (Part I), Danny Shahar suggests that ". . . a drug user might not fully realize the nature of the choice she is making, and so we might want to prevent her from making a poorly informed, and regrettable, decision from which she might be unable to recover." He adds, "But all I'm saying is that it doesn't seem disrespectful of someone's individuality to force them to be aware of the facts about their dangerous decisions if their potential mistake could be ruinous."

Note that Shahar is talking about forcibly preventing someone from using drugs until after they have been informed in some fashion that "we" -- meaning, apparently, Congress or state lawmakers or the FDA or the DEA or someone in (trumpets, please) Authority -- approve of.

The reader might suspect, given my tone, that I am uncomfortable with Danny's suggestion. The reader would be correct. Danny's stated (and I believe quite genuine) concern for every person's individuality is derailed by two major and commonplace misunderstandings, which I discuss below.

Sharer's column was written in response to a column of my own, in which I listed my two points in the subtitle: Danger Is My Middle Name--And So Is Yours (Why Your Right to Self-Ownership Includes the Right to Choose Your Own Dangers). That column, in turn, was triggered by (although not as a response to) Danny's previous Paternalists Just Don't Understand. That may seem enough on the subject already, but given that the War on Drugs is an ongoing assault on human rights with millions of victims and huge amounts of collateral damage both here and around the world, continuing the discussion seems worthwhile. This is a topic that needs wide exposure and careful, honest thought.

My previous Danger column fully makes the point that using force to protect others is morally wrong and, if only for practical reasons, outright foolish. The two fundamental points I discuss here will expand on that. My topics will be the uncertain nature of our knowledge, and the nature of using force in social life.

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The uncertain nature of our knowledge

For decades I have watched science and medicine change their opinions on one thing after another -- which means that we have often been getting wrong and even dangerous advice from experts, in and out of the government. This is not surprising, because the universe is dramatically more complex than we think it is or perhaps can even grasp. The result of all this complexity is that one year's "fact" may be the next year's fallacy. The week doesn't go by that I don't read about science changing its collective mind on something, from diet advice to hormone replacement therapy to cosmology. A few well-known examples that are important in terms of human well-being:

-- Ulcers --

Helicobacter pylori

Doctors long believed (and built lucrative practices around) the theory that ulcers were caused by too much stress and stomach acid. Then, in 1982, Australian doctors Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that infection with Helicobacter pylori bacteria was the cause of most ulcers. It took many years for the medical industry to accept that a short course of antibiotics (instead of a lifetime regimen of antacids and doctor visits) could cure ulcers for most patients. Marshall and Warren won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their discovery.

-- Vitamin D: Miracle Worker or Threat to Health? --

Experts and the medical establishment, including the FDA and others in the federal government, have long warned about toxicity of vitamin D at 2,000 IU or more [PDF] -- a level not much beyond the RDA, currently set at 400 IU per day for most adults and 600 to 800 IU for those over 70. But it turns out that toxicity is not seen below levels of 40,000 units daily for extended periods -- not surprising, since a white-skinned person laying on the beach creates about 10,000 IU of vitamin D in the first 15 minutes of sunbathing (creation of the vitamin slows after that due to degradation by UV light before the vitamin can be absorbed).

While everything has some danger, decades of overblown warnings about "too much" vitamin D have contributed, we now know, to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, gum disease, tooth loss, cancer, infections, and other problems. Vitamin D is necessary for brain health as well as for health of the bones. Those with dark skin and those living at higher latitudes are especially at risk because they get less of the vitamin from their sun exposure. Dr. Donald W. Miller, Jr. points out that "If everyone took 5,000 IU/day of vitamin D, the U.S. 'health care' industry would shrink. It would no longer account for 16 percent of the gross domestic product." Yet official recommendations for vitamin D supplementation remain at levels so low they may not even create detectable blood levels of the vitamin, much less support optimal health. As for safety, Miller reports that: "The LD50 of vitamin D in dogs (the dose that will kill half the animals) is 3,520,000 IU/kilogram. One can take a 10,000 IU vitamin D supplement every day, month after month safely, with no evidence of adverse effect. (Am J Clin Nutr 1999;69:842'856)."

High-dose vitamin D supplements are hard to find at health food stores; Dr. Miller points readers to "two sites that sell both 'D3-5' (5,000 IU) and 'D3-50' (50,000 IU) . . . here and here." 5,000 IU capsules of vitamin D are also available from the Life Extension Foundation; the price is currently under $10 per 60 capsule bottle, and $6.68 in quantity of four or more for members -- an incredibly inexpensive way to support your health.* In summer, simply spending more time outdoors (without sunscreen, at least some of the time) may supply you with all the vitamin D you need -- how's that for cheap? In comparison, the authors of a recent study report that pharmaceutical firms in the United States spent over $57 billion promoting their drugs in 2004 -- "almost twice as much on promotion as they [spend] on R&D." That sound you hear is the government-created medical-pharmaceutical-regulatory complex gnashing its teeth.

-- Global Cooling. Uh, Global Warming. No, Global Cooling. --

In the 1970s and 1980s, global cooling became a major concern. (In a previous column I linked to a Time Magazine article from the era to illustrate this point; here's one from Newsweek, April 28, 1975 [PDF]. The title is 'The Cooling World,' and the opening sentence begins: "There are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically . . .")

In recent years, global warming has replaced concern for global cooling, with so much cheerleading for this view that no reference is necessary. Now -- despite the huge entrenched special interest that has grown up around global warming, global cooling is again what science is seeing in the data -- or at least what some scientists are seeing, and they make a good case. Either way, one obvious point to draw from all this is that committing huge, long-term government resources and programs to one view or the other is, at best, a form of high-stakes gambling. The scientific community is apparently far more clear on this than are the political elite and the general public:

  • "In a 2003 poll conducted by German environmental researchers Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, two-thirds of more than 530 climate scientists from 27 countries surveyed did not believe that 'the current state of scientific knowledge is developed well enough to allow for a reasonable assessment of the effects of greenhouse gases.' About half of those polled stated that the science of climate change was not sufficiently settled to pass the issue over to policymakers at all."

~ Read the Sunspots by R. Timothy Patterson, Financial Post, June 20, 2007

Patterson goes on to tell us that "Solar scientists predict that, by 2020, the sun will be starting into its weakest Schwabe solar cycle of the past two centuries, likely leading to unusually cool conditions on Earth." See also Changes in the Sun's Surface to Bring Next Climate Change and Global Cooling Everywhere.

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Conclusion for Point One: Using government force to "protect" people is foolish, in part because uncertainty is a built-in part of life. Even if people did not have the inherent right to live their own lives and choose their own dangers, this uncertainty factor would undermine attempts at protection and often cause harm by the very efforts aimed at reducing harm. Even forcing people to listen to "approved" information about drugs or other possible dangers is subject to this basic truth about human knowledge: It changes and, thus, is often wrong.

Adding Force to Stupidity and Venality: The Pro-Coercion Approach

Initiating force against peaceful human beings is morally wrong, and is not magically improved by a desire to "protect" others from something they are willingly choosing. As an individual, one might decide to forcibly restrain a neighbor or friend or family member from something (jumping off a bridge, for instance), but even then one incurs liability. Still, natural concern for a fellow human being might lead one to temporarily restrain another in an exceptional circumstance. Whatever harm might come from such an attempt is limited in scope, and the liability of the would-be protector is clear and can be addressed, if necessary, in a court or through arbitration.

When trying to protect others from their own chosen dangers, things change for the worse -- as always -- when we shift to using government force and violence in the service of our goals. Danny's column was on drugs specifically, and I will simply recap some of the results of government "protection" in this area, including the futility of trying to protect others by forcing information down their throats:

-- Drug dangers --

Whenever I think of efforts to "educate" people about the alleged dangers of drugs, I think of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness. Ever since that film, marijuana users have been squarely in the crosshairs of those who feel the need to protect others from themselves. Pot users (and those who used cocaine and other street drugs) were the perfect patsies for the police-prison-legislative-DrugLord complex -- pot users were minorities, for the most part, so who cared what happened to them? Prohibition of alcohol had been dismantled a few years earlier because too many upstanding white folk were getting caught up in the machinery (also, naturally, it was a dismal failure at the stated goal, but later events suggest that was not a real issue); the power elite itself was not about to give up booze, so, despite the lovely police-state powers created by prohibition, the war on alcohol had to go. But addiction to Power is stronger than addiction to crack cocaine, and predictably, the one lesson learned by the power elite from prohibition was not that prohibition was an unworkable, violent, corrupt, and immoral sham, but instead to be more careful about what substances were prohibited. Simply letting free human beings decide on their own what to put into their own bodies would have missed the point -- which was that staggering levels of money and power were at stake.

In addition to billions of dollars in direct fiscal costs to taxpayers, the human costs of sending tens of millions of Americans to the "filthy cages and rape rooms" of the prison system over the years is -- well, impossible to really grasp. Try to imagine the pain, trauma, terror, and disruption for even one victim as he or she is dragged into the court system (assuming they survive the arrest) and then convicted, labeled for life as a criminal, ripped from their family and friends and incarcerated for months or years in a cage with genuine and often violent criminals, and finally let out to face a new life as an ex-con (imagine your first job interview after leaving the Big House). How can we do this to people?

Is marijuana dangerous? Sure; what isn't? On the other hand, is marijuana as dangerous as being arrested and imprisoned? No; of course not -- the number of people who die from pot each year is often given as "zero," although some sources put the number slightly higher [PDF] but still extremely low. Would a free market in marijuana be as dangerous as the cops-and-DrugLords action game (with live ammo) we have created with our drug laws? One second of honest reflection will answer that for you.

Finally, do anti-drug information campaigns work? If they did, the "drug problem" would have vanished long ago. DARE and the many other (often multi-million dollar) anti-drug campaigns have, despite whatever minor or localized success they may have had, clearly not succeeded at keeping Americans from using drugs. Note that this is separate from the question of whether it is even desirable to encourage people to not use recreational drugs. People have used drugs to alter their state of being since before written history began, including in religious ceremonies. Deciding for people that drug use is necessarily wrong is just another form of paternalism. Given the changing state of knowledge as well as the changing state of what we find desirable, even forcing others to listen to what we think they should know about drugs is foolish and worse -- in part because it encourages the eventual use of force to actively prevent drug use, as history has shown repeatedly.

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Conclusion for Point Two: Using force to "protect" others is immoral, dangerous, and no better than using force against people for anything else. If you wish to help someone, please keep force out of it.

The guiding principle for the freedom movement is, with good reason, the non-initiation of force (AKA voluntaryism). If you believe there are good reasons to use force against your fellow human beings other than in actual defense, please give the topic more thought.

If there is one thing history shows clearly, it is that use of force against others, even with the best intentions, soon grows into an ever-larger use of force that eventually becomes a nightmare. See today's United States , or almost any modern nation, for specific examples.


* The Life Extension Foundation is far more thorough and cautious than most organizations which sell supplements; sensible, given that everything has some danger -- not to mention the litigious climate in the United States . Here is the LEF Caution statement for Vitamin D, as given at the bottom of the page linked above [links added in text below]:

"To be taken under a physician's supervision. Monthly blood tests are suggested when taking this 5000 IU vitamin D supplement to guard against a very low risk of kidney toxicity or hypercalcemia (excess calcium in the blood).

"Do not use if taking digoxin or any cardiac glycoside. Use of thiazides and high dose vitamin D may cause hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can result in calcification of soft tissues such as kidney, blood vessels, heart, and lungs."

As yet another reminder that knowledge is seldom as incontrovertible as we would like it to be, here is a long, detailed article by Amy Proal at asserting that almost everything positive ever reported about vitamin D is wrong -- an overstatement, perhaps, but -- well, read the article and decide for yourself. Proal believes that long-term use of vitamin D will eventually be shown to have dire effects. Personally, I think it very unlikely that we would have evolved to create large amounts of vitamin D in our own bodies in response to sun exposure if our bodies didn't have good use for the vitamin D, and I am also not convinced Proal is right about the poor quality and/or misinterpretation of the many research studies showing benefits of vitamin D. Last year a large, randomized, four-year study found a 60% reduction in cancer among participants taking vitamin D; on the theory that some participants may have had undetected cancers at the start of the study, the data was re-analyzed for only the last three years and the cancer reduction was found to be 77%. For another example (out of many), a recent study published in The Nutrition Journal found that adults who took a large array of supplements (an average of 17 different supplements, which would almost certainly include vitamin D) were significantly, even dramatically, healthier by many measures than those who took no supplements or only a single supplement such as a multivitamin. I continue to take 10,000 IU per day and 50,000 IU immediately at the first (and thus, last) sign of a cold -- but I will certainly keep reading up on the topic. Proal's article and the Marshall Protocol movement generally are perfect examples of my point about the uncertainty of knowledge.

** By "initiated force" I mean force used other than in self-defense. Starting the fight and responding in self-defense (or defense of others) to an attack are two different things.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 104

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.