Question: What is the Objectivist position on drug prohibition, prostitution law, and pornography law?
Answer: Objectivism holds that the sole purpose of government is to secure our right to live free from force. This implies property rights and economic freedom, but equally it implies liberties of speech and of other aspects of private life, such as sexual, religious, and dietary conduct.
In fact, economic freedom is the bedrock of many of these other liberties. After all, if one has freedom to trade (as long as one does not initiate force against others), one has freedom to trade drugs or trade sexual favors. If one has the right to property, then one has the right to publish what one wishes and one has the right to speak as one likes on one's own property. And as government has no purpose in controlling speech, one has the right to public debate.
In our culture today, many people confuse morality and politics. Many, from "Moral Majority" conservatives to moralizing "new Democrats," think that whatever is immoral should also be illegal. As a consequence, others confuse the moral with the legal. (See the Enron case, for example, or Bill Clinton's self-righteous equivocations over the meaning of "is." They assume that if they didn't commit fraud or perjury, respectively, they did nothing wrong.)
Many people confuse morality with politics.
But Objectivism sees a vast difference between the moral and the legal. The law is founded on morality, but its purpose is not to enforce morality. Indeed, initiating force is the greatest social vice, and morality, to be objective, must be chosen by the reason of each individual. Objectivism thus advocates the repeal of all laws that violate rights.
The legal is what accords with individual rights. The moral is what accords with an individual's moral code. Living morally is the responsibility of each of us. And insofar as we do not violate anyone else's rights, it is we alone who fundamentally bear the costs of our failures and who most enjoy our successes.
Thus Objectivism holds that drug abuse is an immoral abdication of reason and profoundly self-destructive. But there is nothing about it that demands the initiation of force against others. Drugs are traded by violent criminals today because the drug trade is illegal, not because it inherently attracts criminals. The mob sold booze during Prohibition, after all, but it does not do so now that alcohol is legal again. We would be much better off to end the drug war and have the peace of free trade instead.
Similarly, Objectivism views prostitution as a denial of the true nature of human sex. Sex can be the most intimate of encounters between people, a deeply personal experience of self. But this is not possible if it is not undertaken through mutual esteem that values both the conscious and physical aspects of the other person. But assuming that all parties take part voluntarily and are adults, there is nothing about prostitution that violates rights. It is absurd that we waste tax dollars trying to stamp this out, and it is a shame, too, because it drives prostitutes into the hands of criminals, where they suffer abuse and extortion.
William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society. Thomas is currently a lecturer in the Department of Economics of the University at Albany.