Andrew Lawton

Andrew Lawton

There is a big difference between what is legal and what is right.

With the legalization of recreational pot in Canada (however mired in bureaucracy and regulation), it’s high time for people to realize that the government is not a moral standard-bearer. Nor should it be.

This becomes ever more difficult to understand in a society that increasingly wants government to be the remedy to any and all problems.

If a country values individual liberty as any liberal democracy must, it’s paramount for citizens to have and rely on their own personal moral compasses. But when the nanny state bans anything lawmakers deem wrong or “harmful,” the collective societal belief seems to be that anything not banned is therefore okay. This creates challenges for people of faith.

From tobacco to alcohol to gambling, virtually every vice imaginable is legal in Canada. As of last month, we can add marijuana to the list. It’s tempting for those with moral objections to these things to want them banned. I think it would be far more productive to impel people to detach their sense of morality from that of the government.

I seem to be a rarity as someone who has never smoked or otherwise ingested marijuana in my life. Its legality won’t make any difference to me. I assume most others’ habits will be unchanged by the new laws as well: regular pot users will continue to embrace the drug while others will still abstain.

Of course, there may be a few novelty users. Perhaps some aging 60s children will relive the glory days with a purchase or two. Despite the fanfare and global media attention, the overnight cultural change will be fairly subdued. The real impact will come in about 14 years, when Canadian high schools welcome a new generation born and raised in a society in which marijuana is legal.

By then, the drug that used to be a symbol of rebellion will have become completely normalized, barring any reversals of the legislation, which I don’t anticipate. Anyone wanting that generation to be drug-free shouldn’t look to the government for the solution, but rather to families, the church, and education.

When marijuana was prohibited (which it still is for minors) teens were still managing to get their hands on it. Under the current framework, it’s more difficult for adults to stress the substance’s harm when the government has rolled out the red carpet for marijuana stores.

Even so, government’s role is not to protect people from themselves. If we give the state license to do that, we justify bans on everything from smoking to extreme sports.

On these matters, I’ve always identified with the libertarian position that government should be morally neutral and let individuals decide for themselves, except where the life or liberty of others are at stake (such as with abortion.)

This outlook is becoming more elusive with the shrinking of what the First Baron Moulton called the Domain of Manners. In a speech before the Authors’ Club of London in 1921, Lord Moulton described “three great domains of human action.”

In one, the things that the law proscribes, such as murder and theft. On the opposite side are things we can freely do without moral or legal issue, like walk down the street. In the middle are activities we may legally do, but shouldn’t. Shouting obscenities from a street corner or insulting a classmate, say.

Moulton called our willingness to uphold the things in this space – duty, chivalry, and common courtesy – our “obedience to the unenforceable.”

The larger the domain of manners, the freer and healthier the society. It’s a phenomenon about which my friend Mark Steyn speaks a great deal. It’s particularly appropriate in discussions of free speech, where our individual desire to be civil should outweigh the state’s prerogative to demand a particular type of speech.

Rather than turning the legalization of pot into a “there goes the neighbourhood” lament, we should worry far more about how to step away from seeking moral leadership from governments that are anything but moral bodies.

The reasons for this are as much philosophical as they are pragmatic. If we authorize government to be the enforcer of right and wrong, we give it license to rule against us when the democratic current shifts. It does so too often – and rarely in our direction.


Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a columnist forThe Interim.