Pot, Pundits, and Popular Prudence

The backlash over Brooks's column on marijuana distracts from more important problems with legalization.

After you’re finished applauding the above feat of alliteration, allow me to ring in the new year with a return to a (hopefully more measured) critical spirit and call your attention to the recent snafu that has erupted between David Brooks and…well, it seems most everyone on the internet over a column he wrote about marijuana. His argument is quite simple, one familiar to anyone with parents. He smoked pot for a while, found the experience amusing but distracting from life’s more important pursuits, and was ultimately the source of an embarrassing memory regarding a college English presentation he gave while stoned. He sums up with a classic conservative argument:

Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, 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 do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly 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 stoned.

Reactions have been predictably vitriolic. The more childish ones range from jokes revolving around the amusing Apatow-esque image of an square white guy trying marijuana to outright school-yard style insults. The more, if not measured, then at least well-written critiques seem to center around the familiar slogan: “who is an old white man to tell anybody what sort of person they ought to be?” To them, Brooks is the perfect hypocrite, easily recounting a story about his own recreational pot use (without fear of arrest) whilst a poor black youth might be locked up for the very same offense.

But a debate over decriminalization too often distracts from debate over the potential problems with legalization. As lamentably effective as it is these days to deride someone for their whiteness, oldness, and conservatism, these appeals to class only end up making Brooks’s argument stronger. In November Ross Douthat pointed out in a far less derided column (partly because he’s Douthat, not Brooks, and partly because it was a better argument) the obvious point that the sort of slowdown a white, high-income kid like Brooks would experience from a brief stint as a stoner would be far more devastating for an at-risk, low-income youth. In a context in which normal school attendance is a hard enough road to walk sober, a “recreational” dose of THC is more than enough to suppress the mental alacrity necessary for good academic performance (those “soft skills” eloquently argued for in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed) and leave the student far more likely to drop out. The debate over decriminalization (which is not the same thing as legalization) is important, but it is too often used to distract from other needed conversations about the impact of usage and how legalization will affect them. Before we launch our Twitter missiles, we might consider whether pot usage might be more harmful for some rather than others.

But more than this, it’s disheartening to note how low an opinion everyone has of the benefits of prudence. Everyone seems to miss that Brooks admits that legalization is a win for individual liberty. But he’s not (and never is) concerned with liberty for individuals, but preserving a kind of liberty that permits human flourishing. Legalized pot may be a win for the individual, but not necessarily the group. His point is that sitting around with others and smoking pot comes at the expense of worthier pursuits. Whatever else may be said about the piece, Brooks at least holds consistently to the notion that the fabric of society is woven through human relationships, and he wants those relationships to be the best they can be. There should be nothing particularly controversial about this kind of persuasion. As for legalization, is it so distasteful to suggest that it may not be in our nation’s best interest to push for a new opportunity for sloth at a moment when joblessness and poverty are already doing a good enough job of limiting people’s mobility? Critics ought to argue for the benefits of weed-centric community and what it offers society rather than demean those who criticize it.

2 Responses to “Pot, Pundits, and Popular Prudence”

  1. Ryan

    I think Brooks and the TwitterVerse may simply have different ideas of what law is supposed to be: is it an outer boundary on what people are permitted to do, or a tool by which we encourage virtue? There is a huge gap between permissible and beneficial.

    • Alex Wilgus

      My prejudice (and my hunch) is that the TwitterVerse does not hold to any coherent philosophy of law, but temperamentally nourishes a disposition against certain kinds of conservative arguments no matter how mild or reasonable they may be. I think this is confirmed by how readily the same nook of the TwitterVerse lights up in favor of exactly the same argument applied to guns. Restrictions = possession goes down, virtues of nonviolence/peace inculcated.


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