It ain’t easy defending a column as bad as David Brooks’s yesterday. Reihan Salam tries, and his entry is squarely in that odd category of contrarianism, “if we imagine the column being criticized was making a much different argument than it actually was, it would be much better:”
The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.
It should hardly be surprising that Brooks’ column has become the object of the latest two minutes hate. Last I checked, 65 percent of Americans born after 1981 favor marijuana legalization, which makes favoring it an entirely unremarkable and uncontroversial position, and a good way for those of us born before 1981 to seem “down with the youth.” So we lecture him about his thoughtlessness, and the human consequences of marijuana prohibition, as if Brooks had never considered the ways in which the enforcement of drug laws interacts with racial and other inequalities.
Well, I can read perfectly well, and this doesn’t make any sense as a defense of what Brooks actually wrote:
- The core argument of the first paragraph is just a flat non-sequitur. Contrary to the implication, “legalization” doesn’t require that marijuana be unregulated or untaxed, and more to the point that’s not how actual decriminalization regimes have proceeded. In arguing against decriminalization, Brooks must be defending criminal penalties, not regulations or taxes that deter or constrain use. He wasn’t arguing about how a legalization regime should be properly executed; he was arguing against legalization.
- So, considering Salam’s assertion that “Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use,” the word “draconian” must be doing a lot of work. The problem is that for an offense this trivial, any criminal punishment constitutes an effectively “draconian” penalty. A 30-day prison sentence and a criminal record is enough to very substantially affect the life prospects of a young person. In arguing against legalization, Brooks is ipso facto arguing for legal penalties that exceed the crime. (And while he might not favor, say, arbitrary civil forfeiture, as long as criminal penalties remain on the books it’s going to happen whether Brooks likes it or not, and this something that really has to be taken into account.)
- Has Brooks spent a significant amount of time pondering “the ways in which the enforcement of drug laws interacts with racial and other inequalities”? I have no idea. I can only judge him on what he writes. And what he’s written is a not-very-tightly-argued 800 words defending the maintenance of criminal penalties against users of marijuana without a moment’s consideration of the massive racial inequities inherent in the way these sanctions will be enforced. Even worse, the defense of this arbitrary and racially inegalitarian regime of sanctions involves not a concrete public purpose but some poor-man’s-Allan Bloom (if such a thing is even possible) hand-waving about how people need to be nudged in the direction of actions Brooks considers more noble uses of one’s leisure time. For Brooks to publicly oppose decriminalizing marijuana, for these reasons, without even bothering to engage with the fact that his criminal-law-backed aesthetic gestures will result in destroyed lives only for people much less privileged than he is appalling, however carefully he’s considered these issues in his private life.