Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Perils of Freedom

As a step parent to teens, who operate in a world where drugs are readily available and frequently abused, I read opinion pieces like this one with genuine anxiety. I wonder whether I'm sending them the wrong signals by defending the right of adults to responsibly use medicinal marijuana, as approved by Colorado voters in the year 2000. The issue, in my view, is personal freedom -- that's what I'm an advocate for, not medical marijuana. But I know such distinctions can get blurred in the debate.

Am I inadvertently giving my step children a green light to use drugs by taking this position, as the Denver Post column suggests? I wrestle with that question, but still come down on the side I'm on. My belief in the virtue and value of personal freedom in this case trumps my fear that liberty will lead to license. I want them to grow up free, even if freedom has risks. I want them to use their freedom wisely and responsibly, but there are no guarantees. This is what makes freedom a more perilous course than rules, regimentation and control.

Our desire as parents is to minimize freedom’s dangers by maintaining control, through cajoling, counseling or threat of force and punishment, if necessary. And this serves as a metaphor for the tensions that arise in a free society at large. The paternalists among us want to extend those risk-mitigation controls beyond adolescence, to the adult population – from cradle-to-grave if possible -- because they don’t trust people to make responsible choices. But such paternalism takes a heavy toll on our freedoms over time, which brings a danger arguably more menacing, which some call the Nanny State.

I follow a simple rule of thumb when wrestling with such issues: When in doubt, err on the side of freedom. That's because I fear overweening state tyranny, disguised as paternalism, more than I fear the messiness and riskiness of freedom.

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