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The Eggman Endures

Drug culture is rooted in the war of the elite few upon the many.

Japan Bans Hallucinogenic Mushrooms
(Photo by Yamaguchi Haruyoshi/Corbis via Getty Images)

A splashy feature in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal held a light up to the drug use that characterizes Silicon Valley’s culture. The story was illuminating mostly in the details; the tech industry’s affinity for psychotropics is neither new nor particularly secret. Elon Musk is on ketamine, Sergey Brin is on mushrooms, and everyone is on prescription amphetamines.

Spencer Shulem, a startup CEO that the Journal interviewed, commented, “[Venture capital investors] don’t want a normal person, a normal company. They want something extraordinary. You’re not born extraordinary.” Hence, in Shulem’s case, a turn to LSD—a substance that the late Steve Jobs also praised.

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The association between creative genius and an “alternative lifestyle” is longstanding. The Bloomsbury Group experimented with various innovations in sexual relations. The Californian futurists of the ’60s who invented Silicon Valley as we know it were enthusiastic proponents of the drug culture, which got started with LSD experiments at Stanford around the same time that the school was hosting experiments in computing in a serious way. The standard synthesis of MDMA or ecstasy was invented by Alexander Shulgin, who was given free rein by Dow Chemical to work on whatever projects he saw fit after he invented Zectran, a predecessor to the pesticide RoundUp. 

This is one sort of argument that proponents of drug liberalization field—the use of substances unlocks higher capacities in individuals who can handle them, so it’s all to the good to allow them safe and legal access to them. (Check out the link above for this argument in the context of pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines.) Sherlock Holmes! The Beatles! Hunter S. Thompson! The list goes on.

Of course, there are rather a lot of people, even highly talented people, who don’t benefit from the creative use of substances; the Journal notes the case of Tony Hsieh, the founder of the online shoe emporium Zappos, whose ketamine habit destroyed his life before he died—apparently high—in a house fire; we may add Hsieh to the list of “scromiting” cannabis overuse patients in John Hirschauer’s feature for the latest print edition of The American Conservative. These substances, whatever the benefits, are addictive and dangerous; the dose makes the poison, and there is precious little natural or formal control over dosing.

The direct intellectual antecedent for drug liberalization boosters—and, really, for all proponents of relaxing moral legislation—is John Stuart Mill’s liberalism. The old utilitarian outlined the basically elitist argument for moral deregulation in On Liberty

Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.

If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.

The interests of the weak must be sacrificed to those of the strong and able. Mill’s political conclusion is sinister: “No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.”

It seems unlikely that the tide will soon turn against freer and freer drug use, not to mention the relaxation of other moral standards. Even on the right, “Barstool Conservatives” and a turn toward counterculture revivalism are ascendant. Yet conservatives cannot abandon the cause of moral regulation. As the editorial for our latest print issue argues, “Vice is incompatible with republican virtue.” Political self-government is possible only when based on personal self-government. Deregulation of moral issues sacrifices the interests of the many to the hobbies of the few; vice tends to spread beyond its initial venues to an ever-wider sphere of behaviors. Eight years after Obergefell, it is difficult to argue against slippery slopes.

In other words, just say “no.”

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