In his column today, David Brooks frets about legalizing marijuana, because it’s bad for society.

As an exercise, I changed every reference of marijuana to beer, and smoking to drinking (and Colorado to the United States). Here’s the Brooks column with those edits:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank beer. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up beer. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I drank 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.

We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on drunk. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into alcoholic life.

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking beer doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.

Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking beer was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being high.

I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.

So, like the vast majority of people who try beer, we aged out. We left beer behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have a nation that has gone into the business of effectively encouraging beer use. By making beer legal, we are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. The end of prohibition, in other words, is producing more users.

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of beer 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 drunk.

In legalizing beer, citizens of America are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

So here are a couple of questions for David Brooks. Do you use alcohol? Was Prohibition a good idea?

8 thoughts on “David Brooks on the end of prohibition

  1. Brilliant. Edited for tone, this could totally work as a letter from the 20s opposing the end of the prohibition on alcohol.

  2. I think his core message is generally right. “Higher pleasures” sounds arrogant and elitist, but society benefits more from positive contributions than from individual use of depressants. How many drunks do you know that are happy, upstanding people? I see headlines about drunks beating their children, but not about drunks curing cancer.

    That said, I don’t believe it is a proper function of government to encourage good behaviours. Laws exist to allow those injured by another member of society to seek relief or retribution. The idea of a victimless crime is totally offensive to me because I don’t need protection from myself or what someone else believes are bad choices. One group imposing its moral lifestyle on another might produce a “better” society, but it’s not a free society.

    I rarely drink but I do smoke weed somewhat regularly. To me it’s not a guilty pleasure or even a vice, and I’m not at all addicted or dependent on it. I have a good job, pay (very high) taxes, travel, and do everything else productive people do. So people like David Brooks have no business telling me what I can or can’t smoke in the privacy of my own home.

    But maybe I’m the exception. After all, drunks and drug addicts would be fine, upstanding citizens if not for drugs. There’s simply no way bad parenting, bad choices, stupidity, and unfortunate circumstances could be the reason for their sad state. No, it must be the evil drugs!

    While I agree with Brooks’s overall message that people should seek higher pleasures, I disagree with him on prohibition. We should encourage our family and friends to seek these higher pleasures. And we should help them when they’ve fallen. The problems he refers to cannot (and should not!) be solved by government or laws. Pawning off this responsibility on the government is a disruption to liberty and just plain lazy.

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