[In an effort to improve the quality of discourse while discussing libertarian principles with others, I'm going to be writing about several of the most common logical fallacies I encounter in my advocacy efforts. This is not meant as an argumentative tool, but rather as a tool to help the advocate quickly identify and move past the most common objections. Hopefully, this will result in more rational and civil conversations.]
As I discussed marijuana prohibition with an acquaintance recently, he told me that he knows the War on Drugs is a wasteful failure; however, he cannot support decriminalization because this would amount to the government endorsing or encouraging drug use.
This assumption of his stems from what is known as the appeal to law fallacy. This fallacy occurs when one equates legislation with morality. In other words, if something is illegal, it must be morally wrong. Conversely, if something is legal, it must be morally right.
I don’t think much needs to be said to demonstrate why this is a fallacy. Slavery was perfectly legal in the South. The enslavement and eventual destruction of the Jews and others in Nazi Germany were both legal. Christians in Germany at the time faced a dilemma between defending the persecuted and obeying the law. There are other, less dramatic examples. One example made popular by the Free State Project is the New Hampshire code that makes it illegal to put water in a milk jug.
This fallacy would hold that, if marijuana were decriminalized, it would suddenly become moral. The act of decriminalizing it then would be a statement by the government that this is now a moral act. If this were true, then the state is necessarily endorsing every legal thing. For instance, the use of cosmetics is not illegal in most municipalities that I’m aware of. Does this mean that the government endorses or encourages the use of cosmetics?
When you encounter this fallacy in a discussion about libertarianism, it can be an excellent segue into a discussion about the purpose of government. If it’s not the government’s responsibility to impose someone’s (usually the majority’s) system of morality on everyone, then what is its proper role? And this, in turn, can lead to a discussion of the non-aggression principle, the central tenet of libertarianism.
Edit: Watch as Jan Helfeld demonstrates this fallacy while discussing minimum wage laws with former House Rep. Leslie Byrne:
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