You may have noticed the little Internet kerfuffle over last Friday's column by David Brooks. Brooks is the resident conservative at the New York Times, and at the Times, and on Fridays on NPR and McNeill-Lehrer he uses his amiable, slightly self-deprecating shtick to advance his slightly out of the mainstream conservative views.
Friday he was on marijuana legalization, and in an eminently mockable column he expressed his opposition to legalization, anchoring his opposition to legalization to a youthful experience in which:
I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.
I'm not sure why the lesson of this experience is “never smoke pot ever again” instead of “never get high before you have to give an important presentation”, but I'm not David Brooks.
As I said, the column unleashed a stream of mockery on the Internet, the Twitterverse, and elsewhere, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.
The substantive key to his argument, though, is this:
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.
It is this point, though, that makes the argument for continued prohibition not only incoherent but even inconsistent with conservative ideology.
Let's take a look at how Brooks's argument fits in with conservative ideology. If you've been paying attention at all in recent years you've seen that one of the greatest evils that the conservatives have been trying to protect us all against has been the National Endowment for the Arts. That was exactly what Brooks thinks we want: the government “subtly encourag[ing] the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts . . .”
That's also the agency that conservatives use to stir up their base, threatening to defund the endowment in the guise of fiscal responsibility. If they ever succeed maybe it will enable the Pentagon buy more paper clips or something.
More importantly, though, think about the scale of things that the government can do to influence behavior. On one end of the scale we have almost entirely voluntary efforts, like Michelle Obama's efforts to encourage people to eat well and exercise. * You know, the stuff that conservatives call fascism. All those PSA's you see on TV about wearing your seat belt, not drinking and driving, or not discriminating against people? All ways for the government to subtly encourage people to behave responsibly.
From there we go to financial incentives, like tax-exempt status for educational and cultural organizations: if your local orchestra doesn't need to pay taxes on their they can charge lower prices, and then maybe more people can afford to go to classical music concerts, and rich people can get tax breaks by giving them contributions. Those grants from the National Endowment for the Arts fit in here.
Then if you want to go all the way to the most coercive, most violent method of influencing behavior, we have the criminal justice system. See someone doing something we don't like, throw them in jail. That's the approach we've been following with marijuana for decades, and we've figured out that it doesn't work that well at “discouraging lesser behaviors like being stoned”. Hell, it didn't even work for David Brooks when he was in high school, and I'm guessing he wasn't much of a wild rebel when he was growing up. (Okay, that's going out on a limb, so feel free to prove me wrong.)
So that's what Brooks wants to do: he wants to keep throwing people in jail for marijuana use, even though it doesn't work, apparently because it is government's subtle way of tipping the scales in favor of temperate, prudent behavior and subtly encouraging the higher pleasures.
But there's one more thing that David Brooks left out of his column: his experience of being arrested and going to jail for smoking pot. I'm pretty sure he left it out because it never happened to him. I have a very hard time thinking of a single one of my white friends that it ever happened to, either.
But it's a funny thing: it does happen to black people. Black people use marijuana at about the same rate as white people, and yet they are arrested for it at a tremendously higher rate. Depending on where you are, if you're black you may be three, four, five, or even eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than if you're white.
So of course David Brooks didn't get arrested, and he really didn't have much to worry about. Some people do get arrested, though, and the odds are that those people are not white.
So when he tells us that we should keep marijuana illegal, what David Brooks is saying is that continuing to arrest black people for marijuana use is one of those ways that the government can subtly tip the scales to discourage white people from getting stoned.
Personally, I don't think the goal of keeping future David Brookses from smoking pot and blowing an English report is worth the price of locking up black people.
But maybe that's just me.
*CORRECTION: A reader has pointed out that in addition to the voluntary exercise and healthy eating programs promoted by Michelle Obama, legislation adopted in 2010 and regulations adopted in 2012have made mandatory changes to the school lunch program, including fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and other nutritional standards.