IS WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE?

The federal government should pass laws based on the emergency powers taken by the state in plague situations. . . .


WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, THE UNMAKING OF A MAYOR

What noted conservative advocates jailing people to prevent the spread of their ideas? Would you believe William F. Buckley?

It is Buckley. The issue on which he takes this position is narcotics addiction. He does not state it in these terms, of course. He says, rather, that “narcotics is a contagious disease,” whose spread is to be prevented by “quarantining all addicts, even as smallpox carriers would be quarantined during a plague,” in other words, by incarcerating addicts to prevent them from addicting others.

He calls narcotics addiction a contagious disease because most addicts acquire the habit from other addicts. This analogy denies free will. Catching a disease requires no cooperation on the part of the victim; he associates with someone who has the disease and gets sick, whether he wants to or not. A Typhoid Mary is quarantined to prevent her from infecting unwilling victims. Narcotics addiction is not, in this sense, infectious. The victim must choose to take the drug. Mr. Buckley, associating with a dozen addicts, would be in no danger of addiction.

Someone who becomes addicted by associating with other addicts has not been forcibly infected. He has seen a behavior pattern and chosen to adopt it. He may do so, as Mr. Buckley says, because he is “psychologically weak or misinformed.” Such possibilities exist for any decision—getting married, joining the Catholic church or subscribing to National Review. The choice is up to him. His decision, like any act of free will, may be wrong. It is not involuntary. It is conversion or persuasion, not infection. Narcotics addiction is a contagious disease only in the same sense as conservatism and Catholicism. Like narcotics addiction, both are patterns of belief and action which many people regard as harmful to both the addict and his society. Like narcotics addiction, both are spread by the already infected. Mr. Buckley is a carrier of one and perhaps both; to his credit, he has infected many. Does he oppose the incarceration of conservatives and Catholics only because he agrees with their views? Would he favor jailing Galbraith, Bundy, and several Rockefellers as carriers of liberalism, a disease which has done far more damage than drug addiction?

The answer is no. The position Mr. Buckley takes on narcotics addiction is inconsistent with his belief in a free society. Even on the issue of internal communism, where he is most frequently charged by the left with authoritarian views, he justifies internal security laws on the grounds that Communists are trying to impose their system by force upon the rest of us. Narcotics addicts are not. He wants to imprison them for acting and persuading others to act in a way injurious mostly to themselves.

Mr. Buckley might not concede that addiction damages mostly the addict; he quotes Mayor Wagner as estimating “the cost to the community in crime, treatment, and added police protection” at a billion dollars a year. If true, this comes to about $20,000 per addict; the city could save money by hiring a policeman to accompany every addict at all times.

Whether true or not, it is irrelevant. This is the cost not of addiction but of laws prohibiting narcotics. Addicts commit virtually no crimes while actually high on narcotics; they have neither the will nor, usually, the ability. They steal to pay for the next fix. If legal, narcotics would cost a small fraction of their present price and few addicts would have to engage in large-scale crime to pay the costs, just as few alcoholics do.

Mr. Buckley’s answer: “It is not feasible to dispose of the social problem by making drugs generally available under doctor’s prescription. A typical addict always desires more of the drug than a responsible doctor, concerned with the addict’s physical health, is willing to give him.” This assumes that it is the business of the doctor to impose his judgment on the addict. Certainly the doctor should warn the addict of the effect of overlarge doses. If, knowing this, the addict is willing to trade his health or his life for a few years, or months, or minutes of drug-induced ecstasy, that is his affair. Part of freedom is the right of each of us to go to hell in his own fashion.

It sounds brutal to say that an addict should be allowed to kill himself with drugs. Consider the alternative to which Mr. Buckley is driven. Out of a benevolent regard for the addict’s health, we limit his consumption of drugs. Because of his desire for more drugs, the addict becomes a danger to us, his benevolent protectors. So we put him in jail and, so far as I can tell from Mr. Buckley’s statements, throw away the key. After all, as Mr. Buckley says, “It is practically impossible to ‘cure’ a narcotics addict who does not desire to be cured.”

Mr. Buckley should re-examine his premises when he finds himself casually talking about the difficulty of curing people of things they do not want to be cured of. He has allowed an incorrect analogy to lead him to an intolerable position.

Those who have stumbled into physiological addiction and wish to be cured deserve our sympathy and our charity. Those addicts who do not wish to be cured should be left alone.

[This chapter was originally printed as an article in The New Guard in April 1969. Buckley replied in the Summer 1969 issue of the same magazine. I rebutted briefly in the October 1969 issue.

In his syndicated column of March 1985, Buckley announced that he had changed his mind and now favored legalizing heroin and cocaine, a step which “shrewd observers” had “recommended … for years”. Buckley made it clear that he still does not see anything wrong in principle with government regulation of private moral behavior. He supports legalization because he thinks the government can never win the war on drugs, while prohibition greatly increases violent crime.]