In a recent Atlantic essay, physician Matthew Loftus argues that “America has gone too far in legalizing vice.” Because people do not always make rational decisions and sometimes develop self-destructive habits, Loftus argues, the government should make it harder, not easier, to engage in pleasurable activities such as gambling and cannabis consumption. “Just as highways have guardrails for the moments when a driver isn’t exercising perfect self-control,” he writes, “so we also need guardrails to help people from driving off cliffs of vice.”
To his credit, Loftus does not draw arbitrary distinctions between potentially harmful habits based on their current legal status. He argues that alcohol prohibition was successful in reducing the harm caused by excessive drinking, for example, and seems to understand that any pleasure-providing or stress-relieving activity can be the focus of an addiction—a point that psychologists such as Stanton Peele and Jeffrey Schaler have been making for many years.
But Loftus exaggerates how often that happens, obscuring the implication that the government should impose restrictions on everyone based on the mistakes of a minority. He cherry-picks data to support his argument that liberalization of marijuana policies has been harmful. And while he emphasizes human fallibility as it relates to “vice” itself, he ignores its perils in formulating laws and regulations aimed at curtailing “vice.”
The term that Loftus uses to describe things that people enjoy is telling. The “vice” label implies that even occasional or moderate gambling, drinking, or cannabis consumption is morally suspect and provides no value that is worth considering. That is convenient for the argument in favor of paternalistic policies like the ones that Loftus supports. But it ignores the reality that people who engage in such activities typically do not develop life-disrupting habits they ultimately regret. By and large, these activities are life-enhancing rather than life-disrupting.
Loftus implies otherwise. “Our hearts and minds are shaped not only by reason but also by our experiences, affections, and, most important, our habits, which are just as often inexplicably self-destructive as they are reasonable,” he writes.
That is an empirical claim, implying that roughly half of the people who gamble, drink, or use marijuana develop “self-destructive” habits. The evidence does not support that claim.