Michael Gerson
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WASHINGTON -- Before last week's South Carolina Republican debate, Ron Paul supporters complained that their candidate was not getting the first-tier attention his polling and fundraising should bring. It is true that Paul has often been overlooked and dismissed, as one might treat a slightly dotty uncle. But perhaps some first-tier scrutiny is deserved.

Paul was the only candidate at the debate to make news, calling for the repeal of laws against prostitution, cocaine and heroin. The freedom to use drugs, he argued, is equivalent to the freedom of people to "practice their religion and say their prayers." Liberty must be defended "across the board." "It is amazing that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way," he said, "but not when it comes to our personal habits."

This argument is strangely framed: If you tolerate Zoroastrianism, you must be able to buy heroin at the quickie mart. But it is an authentic application of libertarianism, which reduces the whole of political philosophy to a single slogan: Do what you will -- pray or inject or turn a trick -- as long as no one else gets hurt.

Even by this permissive standard, drug legalization fails. The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods -- say, in Washington, D.C. -- has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their "personal habits."

But Paul had an answer to this criticism. "How many people here would use heroin if it were legal? I bet nobody would," he said to applause and laughter. Paul was claiming that good people -- people like the Republicans in the room -- would not abuse their freedom, unlike those others who don't deserve our sympathy.

The problem, of course, is that even people in the room may have had sons or daughters who struggled with addiction. Or maybe even have personal experience with the freedom that comes from alcohol and drug abuse. One imagines they did not laugh or cheer.

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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