The Limits of Libertarianism

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.


  1. Troy Grant July 12, 2014 at 9:58 am | #

    Libertarians ignore the fact that the unlimited concentration of wealth and power they defend is the greatest threat to liberty. This contradiction is their greatest and most obvious failure. One that destroys the credibility they may have due to reasonable stances on ending the WOD, legalizing prostitution, etc.

    • Bill Kelsey July 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm | #

      Troy, actually we libertarians don’t defend “unlimited concentration of wealth and power” and we do agree with you that it “is the greatest threat to liberty.” That is why we are so opposed to the Washington regime, the corporations that it subsidizes, and the mass murder it carries out in our names abroad.

      • Troy Grant July 12, 2014 at 4:40 pm | #

        I’m not sure that the Kochs would agree with you. You may be a left libertarian like Chomsky.

  2. jeremylmohler July 12, 2014 at 10:12 am | #

    Great little post. I’d add to the end that if libertarians don’t stand for the freedom of the employee re: marijuana then they don’t actually stand for freedom. They rhetorically elevate what they call “freedom” but what in reality is the freedom of status quo hierarchies of power (capital over labor, white supremacy, etc.) to continue and even expand further…which of course is the inverse of freedom. Freedom implies something approaching equality.

  3. Yastreblyansky July 12, 2014 at 10:37 am | #

    Libertarian freedom isn’t for common folk like Mr. Boyer. It’s for important people like Mr. and Mrs. Green at Hobby Lobby (who, we just learned, are working to implement a four-year mandatory Bible curriculum in Oklahoma public schools–Hobby-Lobby-long-term-goal-Mandate-4-Year-Bible-Curriculum-that-HL-writes-in-Public-Schools?detail=facebook, because public school students are also not the sort of people that freedom is meant for, just a bunch of takers). The same people whose money (returns on investment) has to be taxed at a lower rate than our money (wages) because it’s such tender, sensitive money, it can’t be expected to cope with all that violence. Libertarianism is against government restricting your right to get high, but your private employer’s freedom to punish you for it is sacred.

  4. David Chuter July 12, 2014 at 12:14 pm | #

    Um, as I understand it this is somebody who was sacked for turning up for a security-related job with a chemical in his blood which presumably might have impaired his performance, and which he had contractually promised not to take. I’d be the last person on earth to defend libertarianism, but this case surely has nothing to do with questions of decriminalization. The fact that a drug is decriminalized doesn’t mean it’s harness and can and should be taken all the time – would you like to fly with an airline pilot who had just arrived from a hard night’s drinking, for example? Even for a libertarian you’d have to be pretty weird to find that acceptable.

    • Roquentin July 14, 2014 at 2:08 am | #

      Even though there is some merit to this argument, these tests merely indicate that you’ve smoked pot roughly in the past month. You wouldn’t say this about a pilot who got fired for drinking on his evening off, would you? That has always been what’s so unfair about urinalysis tests. It singles out pot smokers. Cocaine is out of your system in roughly a day, by contrast. There’s a really big difference between regulating sobriety on the job vs during downtime.

  5. Kevin July 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm | #

    He signed a contract specifically disallowing him from using marijuana, though. If he was just fired because his employers did not support what he was doing on his own time you may have a point.

  6. SocraticGadfly July 12, 2014 at 12:54 pm | #

    First, I agree with Mr. Chutner that, even if some libertarians might think the company’s concerns over marijuana are overblown, this is a poor issue on which to question how rational or consistent libertarians are.

    That said, aving just finished that new book about the Koch Bros., “Sons of Wichita,” part of Charles and David’s dust-up with Ed Crane and others at Cato a few years back that almost led to it imploding do indicate, I think, that different liberatarians would answer this question differently, if it were framed more abstractly. A minority, but a not-insignificant one, probably would say that, even if they don’t think a state’s employment department should regulate such things, that an individual should be free to sue if fired over such things.

  7. SocraticGadfly July 12, 2014 at 1:17 pm | #

    This particular issue has several other problems.

    1. Did the company require drug testing because it feared problems with marijuana or simply because marijuana was illegal. If the latter, or more the latter than the former, maybe it hadn’t had time to consider changing its policy. That said, if it has federal as well as state work that it does, its fear of the federal government’s perception of marijuana would lead it to keep its policy in place.

    2. The “sanctity of contract” issue. Many libertarians, while not necessarily as Big Biz as the Koch Bros, would still stress this issue, even at companies not involved with security work. They might say that they think working standards contracts are coercive but that would-be employees have the right not to sign them and work elsewhere.

    3. Regulatory vs. civil issues. Other libertarians might say that, with a drug-test requirement in the workplace in general, state employment agencies have no right to regulate against such requirements, but that they still support the right of individual employees to sue when “busted.”

    In short, depending on exactly how the issue is framed (an important fact right there) and other things, many a libertarian might agree with the employee. To pluck out a name, I have no doubt that Gary Johnson, in a more generalized, non-security-employer issue, would side with the employee not the employer.

  8. Norwood Orrick (@BlogWood) July 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm | #

    What the first three commenters said.

    Also, the guy was actually re-hired. Apparently, the agreement he signed stipulated that he not show up for work under the influence. Since his purchase and documented usage took place on his day off, his employer agreed to take him back and paid him for the day he missed.

    Man Fired After Buying Legal Weed in Washington Will Get His Job Back

  9. ericscoles July 12, 2014 at 3:06 pm | #

    If Libertarians are ideologically consistent, they have to be OK with him being fired. In Libertarian ideology, employment is rightly understood as a labor sale/purchase contract between two parties, and it’s subject only to mutually agreed terms and such terms as are necessary to maintain public order. No bona fide libertarian I’ve ever met would regard protections against firing for the consumption of drugs as necessary to maintain public order.

    Now, just to be clear, I think that’s a deeply mistaken view. But it is Libertarian doctrine, and an ideologically consistent Libertarian would have to agree.

    • Jeoffrey Pucci July 23, 2014 at 10:18 am | #

      Yes, their position does seem consistent on this point if we consider how strictly their nonconsequentialist conceptualisation position binds them to strictly follow the terms – and not consequences – of said agreed upon binding-conditions in the given contract.

      This point, if I may point out, is echoed throughout R. Nozick’s early chapters in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Where Nozick proposes that we think of justice in terms of holdings and transfers of holdings, as procedures sanctioned by antecedent rights; that we envision economic operations in a way that is independent of our particular empirical regularities – beyond the scope of moral and ethical approaches that regard the effects of economic and moral interactions as part and parcel to the overall nature of economic relations. Libertarians believe that by following certain processes we produce a purely procedural approach that eliminates the irregularity of empirical justifications that are so often found in a consequentialist approach.

      So it seems, then, in this light their position is consistent in respecting the terms of an agreement, regardless if the original post did not know the exact terms – i.e., he was bound only to be “sober” for work and not necessarily so outside of work – they, libertarians, could justify their position in either situation.

  10. jonnybutter July 12, 2014 at 4:13 pm | #

    would you like to fly with an airline pilot who had just arrived from a hard night’s drinking, for example?

    A commercial pilot with a hangover?! Gosh, has that ever happened? I would find it acceptable, and it is legal, and has happened tens of thousands of times, probably. BTW, I would rather have a pilot who smoked a weed last night rather than drank.

    What I worry about is the complete hysteria about drugs in general in the US. We do more drugs (probably) – and certainly OBSESS about drugs more – than anybody in the world. At the same moment we are yearning for a cheap pill to ‘fix’ anything you can think of, we are also decrying drugs as a scourge. It is madness, and madness can be scary.

    If he was just fired because his employers did not support what he was doing on his own time you may have a point.

    Hey Kevin, his employer probably does have the right to fire him because they don’t ‘support’ what he’s doing on his own time, or for any other reason, or for no reason.

    The big joke about American Corporo-libertarianism (what we anglo-americans call just ‘libertarianism’) is that much of what they favor is already the law and practice of the land. As if the small amount of regulation we do have is what’s holding the country and economy back!

    • jonnybutter July 12, 2014 at 4:13 pm | #

      sorry for the open tag

  11. Cavoyo July 13, 2014 at 7:18 am | #
  12. GerardO July 14, 2014 at 3:00 am | #

    Libertarians would rather give personhood to an abstract commercial entity than give it to the working class. They are a waste of space.

  13. Your Pal Garrett July 14, 2014 at 10:59 pm | #

    I don’t really agree with this argument but couldn’t a libertarian legitimately argue that the marketplace worked? The dude gets fired, the media gets a hold of it and he gets his job back because it makes his employer look bad. With the exception of actually legalizing reefer, the government was not involved in this situation.

    If I were a libertarian, I might sincerely make that argument.

  14. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg July 17, 2014 at 1:17 am | #

    The first question I ask libertarians who rant about the tyranny of government bureaucracy is if they’ve ever worked in an office environment. There’s a good reason the Ayn Rand style libertarian philosophy goes over so well with white tradesmen and women. They’re very often somehow sheltered from the mindless tyranny of the classic flourescently lit cubicle world.

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