On Saturday I had an article in the Dom ranting about how harm minimisation was a dumb goal – as there are benefits from the consumption of drugs. This argument has been on the internet a million times (see these two searches for example), so there is no need to rehash it here.
Originally, the article was a little different. It was a direct attack on the paternalism implicit in the policy making associated with the anti-drug crusade and the policy target of minimising harm. Fundamentally, this is a critique of what the Law Commission has done – they are an independent body that should critique how the law differs from the target of policy (which they do well IMO) AND critique where policy differs from its practical aim (something they haven’t done). Often the implementation of laws differs from policy because the policy is bad!
The last three paragraphs from this far more libertarian style article were:
However, why as a society are we determined to stop people hurting themselves? Part of life is learning to take responsibility when your own choices and actions hurt you – having a government act in a paternalistic way to stop this, and make it harder for people to learn about individual responsibility, seems dangerous to me.
Even if we do have sufficiently little faith in our fellow man, and believe that the government should act like our parents, is this type of policy intervention equivalent to good parenting? A good parent will set some boundaries, but also give a child the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and will be there to help if things go wrong – only a bad parent would focus only on potential harm and ignore any benefit to the child when setting boundaries. In this sense, even the most paternalistic people must agree that solely focusing on harms from any action is a poor way to ensure that we have the happiest society possible.
Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that a truly civilised society must be based on compassion, not control – it should be based on people’s happiness and freedom, not the desire of some policy wonks to create their ideal world.
Comments and criticism of this view welcome.
Update: Relevant points from Eric Crampton (Uni of Canterbury/Offsetting Behaviour) and Luke Malpass (Centre for Independent Studies).