A Reaction to Peter Hitchens: Democracy, Drugs, and Free Will

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday evening the university was visited by Peter Hitchens, columnist for the Daily Mail, ardent conservative, and brother to the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. You can read his blog here. Peter Hitchens exceeded my intellectual expectations and impressed me. He was thoughtful, clever, articulate, and even admitted to not always being thoroughly pleased with the content of the paper for which he writes. I even found myself agreeing with Hitchens in one quite notable, and though I disagree with many of his other positions, the nature of our disagreement was not quite what I expected either. Today I would like to discuss to views and opinions of Peter Hitchens, where I agree with him, where I disagree, and the reasoning behind each.

The first position Hitchens articulated was the one with which I found myself, to my own surprise, in firmest agreement–his view that the Conservative Party in Britain has become unprincipled, unimaginative, and unable to affect real political change. This view is remarkably similar to a view I have discussed previously, that in democratic politics political parties have a tendency toward the self-perpetuating mainstream view of the median person. The parties move toward this intellectually dead realm where all the various ideas lead back to the status quo and impede dynamism because that’s where it is easiest to claim a democratic majority, and the consequence is that the political spectrum gets continuously more and more narrowly focused around a very small zone of consensus. The consensus is self-sustaining because, just as the parties move to the consensus to get votes, the existence of the consensus tends toward a wide media audience for consensus ideas in the media, persuading more people to the consensus view and self-perpetuating its electoral effectiveness. I do however take this idea somewhat further than Hitchens does–Hitchens argues that the solution is a collapse of the major parties and their replacement with repositioned parties, but I hold that it is the democratic procedure itself that produced the situation in which we now find ourselves, and that eventually any democratic political party will eventually devolve in the age of media into an intellectual shell of its former self. My solution to the problem is the replacement of the democratic system with sophiarchism. Still, it was remarkable that Hitchens had made this observation so very close to my own, because my view is not, at present, particularly mainstream.

I also agreed with Hitchens’ argument from this that voting is not a sensible political activity, because it sustains and propagates the impotent and ineffective status quo, all the while knowing that the direction Hitchens would like to take our society is quite dissimilar from my own. Hitchens and I both would like to see dynamic government that takes serious decisions and enacts real, comprehensive, impactful policies, but in very disparate directions.

This initial agreement made me somewhat more receptive to Hitchens’ other arguments and positions, and, while he was unsuccessful in changing my views on religion, drug legalisation, criminal justice, and so on down the line, I did observe that his arguments were logical and well-reasoned. This may perhaps sound paradoxical–if the arguments were so logical and well-reasoned, why did they not change my position? The answer I would give here is that it is possible for someone to write a valid argument, in which each point follows logically from the proceeding point, without the argument being correct. The initial premises on which the logical construction is built can still be incorrect or faulty, and if the foundation of the argument is askew, the entire argument does not work.

Consider Hitchens’ position on criminal justice and drugs. A reconstruction of Hitchens’ argument might go something like this:

  1. All human beings have free will and freedom of choice.
  2. Ergo, the decision to acquire drugs in violation of law is a choice that a person can freely make in either direction, for or against, rationally.
  3. Consequently, if a deterrent is introduced via strict enforcement of drug laws, the use of drugs will become much less attractive.
  4. All other policies that fail to deter are consequently labelled a form of enabling, because they do not deter.

The principle of deterrence is indeed a valid principle–it is the basis for our entire system of security from nuclear attack, and has performed quite well in that capacity. There is nothing wrong with this argument in terms of its validity. Where we must disagree with it is in its fundamental premises and assumptions, the key one here being that “all human beings have free will and freedom of choice”. If people are free and rational, then it follows that deterrence can change the equation for them away from “drugs are fun, therefore I should try them” to “drugs are fun, but if I try them the state will punish me, so I won’t try them”. However, historically, strict drug enforcement has a sketchy record (consider our own United States as just such an example). The reason I would posit for this is that Hitchens’ assumption is wrong–people are not freely and rationally choosing to use drugs, but are being compelled to do so by social forces whose strength exceeds the state’s ability to deter with punishment.

People are not naturally attracted to that argument because it implies that we do not have free will, that we are controlled and influenced by forces outside our control, and this makes people feel a sense of justifiable nervousness. If we do not have absolute power over ourselves and our own actions, we are in a sense our own prisoners, and indeed, this is the tragedy of drug addiction–people become slaves to their desires, to their id. We like to view our actions as deliberate choices, but I would argue that there are only two inputs into everything we do:

  1. Genetic background–the basic facts of our potential in terms of personality, intellect, and physical prowess that are inherent from birth
  2. Environmental socialisation–the interaction of every event and interaction in our lives on this basic genetic background

One can argue that one of these forces is stronger than the other, but whichever prioritisation they hold for you, there is one truth about both–neither is self-selected. You did not choose your genetic background and you did not choose your experiences. For the “free will” premise to hold, there would need to be a third influencing factor on behaviour that is self-selected. I would argue that there is no such third factor, and certainly none that is self-selected. We are the amalgamation of genetics and socialisation, and all of our behaviours and actions are the product of these forces. While deterrence is a kind of social input, it is not of sufficient strength to influence the sort of people who do choose to use drugs. It is common knowledge that, broadly speaking, most drugs are not good for you and will lead to a deterioration of your mental and physical health. People who nonetheless choose to use them, particularly the more severe ones, are exhibiting a self-destructive tendency that is likely the result of defects either in genetic background or environmental socialisation, defects that would be quite difficult to counter merely with the threat of state punishment. The people who would take state punishment seriously, who would see that as having an influence on their likeliness to use drugs, with the exception of the deeply ignorant (of whom there are relatively few left now, at least with regard to the drugs issue) are the sort of people least likely to try drugs in the first place.

My disagreements with Hitchens were all more or less of this form–he had a premise that I didn’t think was right, but nonetheless argued from that false premise with intelligence. Consequently, I am in respectful disagreement with Hitchens, and, while I will not defend most of his views, I will defend his intellectual character.