Monday, August 15, 2011

Get Hammered and Find a Car...Just Don't Hit Anything

Libertarians do not believe that drunk driving should be illegal.

Read that one again.

I hate this one because there's no possible way to hear it for the first time and think the speaker has all his marbles.  I suspect that some will retain that thought regardless of my explanation to follow.  However, more than any other issue that libertarians espouse, I believe this one causes most people anguish, and deserves explanation.

Imagine this scenario: A man is in a bar, and has had a few too many.  Maybe just one too many, but still, it's too much.  He stumbles out to his car, miraculously finds the right key, argues with the door handle for a few seconds, then flops into the driver's position.  After seven or eight attempts and a couple of hiccuping giggles, he manages to get the car started, puts it into drive via muscle memory, and drives home.  During the trip, he violates no traffic laws, and arrives home safely without incident.  He staggers inside his house, and falls asleep.

In this scenario, a crime has been committed.  Depending on how many times the man has engaged in this behavior, it is possible he just committed a felony.  In most jurisdictions, regardless of his history, he would be guaranteed of jail time, community service, a fine, and a host of other legal troubles.

The libertarian problem with this punishment is that no person was actually injured in any way.  Much like Pre-Crime in the movie Minority Report, punishments for this crime are derived from the notion of what might have happened, rather than what did.  The fact that he was impaired had no effect on the outside world, and yet, a curious or bored police officer stop would've guaranteed the man go to jail, leads many libertarians, including myself, to call drunk driving laws unjust.

Now...the question in your mind is what I want to do with drunks who crash into people.  Three words: HANG. THEM. HIGH.  I have no problem with drunkenness being a mitigating factor in these sorts of incidents, and in fact, would argue that a crash incurred due to drunkenness indicates a wanton disregard for human life.  Throw the book at them.  Lock them up forever.  I would even be inclined to call a vehicular homicide where alcohol played a factor murder. 

So...from the Friendly Libertarian...I say drink up, but know your limits.  This is one dice game in which you don't want to crap out.


  1. I've heard this argument before, and have considered it on multiple occasions. Intellectually, I understand your premise and agree in principle, however, I believe there is a limit to the idea that "a behavior is not punishable until someone is harmed".

    I don't need to tell you this, because you already have heard the responses, both emotional and intellectual, a hundred times over I'm sure. You could draw a comparison to starting a fire in your backyard, or firing a gun into the air, or even driving 200 mph on the highway. I think the idea is that, in a society, we have a responsibility to limit actions that we know have a very, very high correlation with injury to others.

    Let me say that while I understand your premise, I don't believe that our society is capable of limiting dangerous behavior without firm punishment as a detriment (and in fact we may not be able to limit this behavior WITH punishment either).

    Economists everywhere are saddened, as they believe all action is attributable to motivation and reward (compensation). Until we find universal positive reward that compels people to avoid dangerous risks, only negative punishment will be effective (we hope, at least).

    Ok, that's my long response. Nice blog. I'll read it regularly.


  2. JR...I appreciate your response. I do not deny that the reality of what I'm suggesting would both be frightening and require a definite adjustment period. I get that. I really do.

    The only counterargument I can make is that research on certain controlled environments...say, schools...has indicated many positive outcomes from a greater degree of autonomy (which is what I'm suggesting). Here's a study about how well students do when given greater responsibility:

    I think that the hardest part about the abolition of drunk driving laws is the trust we must have that adults will act like adults. However, I can say that as a former teacher, higher expectation tended to yield higher results. I appreciate your sentiments, though, and fully understand them. Thanks for posting.