Abusers give vice a bad name

Thursday, July 27th, 2023

According to our prevailing civic religion, Bryan Caplan asks, who are we supposed to resent, stigmatize, and punish in response to drug and alcohol addiction?

First and foremost, the producer. Anyone who makes money off of human misery.

Second and secondarily, the typical user. Sure, they rarely experience severe personal blowback. But they normalize deviant behavior. And they put money into the pockets of the vendors of sin, allowing them to flourish.

Last and least, the “abuser” or “addict.” Personally, they may disgust us. Yet the bipartisan position is that archetypal abusers are victims who deserve general sympathy and taxpayer assistance.

I say that these priorities are confused at best.

Visualize a world full of moderate users of every alleged vice. You might not approve, but what’s the big deal? The moderate users do their jobs, live in homes, take care of their families, and keep their friends. They’re not perfect, but who is?

The picture doesn’t change if you add thriving legal businesses supplying all these moderate users with their desired products.


The difference between me and normal observers: I don’t consider extreme abusers or “addicts” to be victims. I consider them victimizers. They aren’t a symptom of a greater social problem. They are the greater social problem. Abusers have and continue to make evil choices. Granted, it logically possible to end up on Fentanyl Row through tremendously bad luck. Empirically, however, everything I’ve read on poverty convinces me that the root cause of such residence is almost invariably extraordinarily irresponsible behavior.


Abusers don’t just mistreat their families, friends, neighbors, and passersby. Even worse, they give vice a bad name. Abusers inspire the indiscriminate, unjust “wars” on innocent users. They inspire prohibition, which takes production out of the hands of ordinary businesspeople and into the hands of criminals.


At minimum, you can impose the standard punishments for theft. Which is easy, because if you examine encampments, ill-gotten wares are in plain sight. Stealing shopping carts is a crime. Stealing bicycles is a crime. It’s crazy for cops to look the other way when shifty characters violate property rights in plain sight. And unless you oppose the very existence of public property, you can also consistently favor enforcement of laws against trespassing on, vandalizing, and defiling public property. Enforcing all of this doesn’t precisely make abuse illegal, but it comes close.


But in a strange sense, both gun control and prohibition grow out of softness. A system with the moral courage to harshly, swiftly, and surely punish violence would have little need of gun control. A system with the moral courage to harshly, swiftly, and surely punish abusers for stealing, trespassing, vandalizing, and defiling would have little need of prohibition. In both cases, we haphazardly punish millions of innocents because we refuse to decisively punish thousands of clear-cut criminals.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    It takes a lot more than “moral courage” to swiftly and surely punish violence (or anything else), and it’s harder yet to do it without punishing a fair number of innocent people. As a libertarian, Caplan is surely aware of this — at times when it doesn’t undermine the point he’s making.

  2. VXXC says:

    So, Caplan got robbed, eh?

    And now he’s hangin’ Bryan. Kill ‘em all. HANG THEM ALL !

    But not the moderate user, like Bryan.

  3. Michael van der Riet says:


    A very mature, well thought-out comment.

  4. Jim says:

    If abusers give vice a bad name, Bryan Caplan gives Jews a bad name.

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