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When Public Policy Changes, Trust Your Neighbors

By Stanley Schwartz

How do you react when you learn of a new state law, Supreme Court decision, executive order, or federal regulation on an issue that matters to you? In recent months, setbacks for drug decriminalization initiatives in Oregon and British Columbia have sparked fierce criticisms of the attempt to use criminal penalties to solve public drug use and drug addiction. Those criticisms mirror similarly sharp attacks made on drug decriminalization programs when they first launched in recent years. Citizens on both sides of this policy battle feel strongly. Rapid shifts in policy carry them on an emotional rollercoaster. In moments of quick political changes, many citizens oscillate between feelings of triumph and tragedy, delight and despair as various government organs churn out new policies and tweak old ones. Some people even argue that democratic governments are fundamentally flawed. After all, aren’t abrupt alterations of laws bound to produce fierce disagreements and civil unrest? The recent rollback of drug decriminalization initiatives in Oregon and British Columbia provides an opportunity to explore these considerations.

In 2020, the state of Oregon’s Measure 110 decriminalized possession of small amounts of many substances, including heroin. Public drug use would result in fines, but in 2022 the state funded treatment networks to pay the fines and rehabilitate people suffering from addiction. In 2023, British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, likewise removed criminal penalties for possessing a few grams of cocaine, fentanyl, and other substances. Politicians have recently reconsidered both initiatives. In March, after nearly eight thousand public use citations yielded only two hundred calls to treatment centers, a new Oregon law amended Measure 110. The 2024 statute empowered police to bring drug users before a judge for a probation sentence that could eventually lead to jail time. The premier of British Columbia announced in April changes allowing the police to intervene to stop the use of drugs in public spaces, such as hospitals and parks. Officers could confiscate the substances in question and in extreme cases arrest the people possessing them.

The whiplash career of these decriminalization initiatives stems from surging popular dissatisfaction. Voters cried out against disorder in the streets and sharp increases in overdose deaths, even as public figures in Oregon and British Columbia continue to argue that criminal penalties will not solve the substance abuse crisis. Such sharp turns in policy may provoke strong emotions from citizens, many of whom may declare victory or defeat, depending on their preferences. Others may lose confidence in a political system that reverses itself so quickly and seems unable to supply long-term solutions to pressing life-or-death problems.

Insights from John Henry Newman, an esteemed nineteenth-century clergyman and author, can help tame rising bitterness in the aftermath of upsetting policy changes. As a thoughtful Christian, Newman sought to defend belief in God as reasonable, so he worked to understand how people come to believe anything at all. In his book, Grammar of Assent, the Englishman argued that people do not reach conclusions by following syllogisms in formal, theoretical arguments. As Russell Kirk explained in The Conservative Mind, Newman concluded that reason follows human actions rather than preceding them. People come to certain convictions through life experiences and observations. What you see and do shapes your habits and intuitions. Newman developed the concept of the Illative Sense to describe how this process works. Illative refers to bringing in. Our minds don’t stand above the world, judging whether something is right through a purely internal process of logical reflection. A person’s embodied experiences, according to Newman, generate a wave of inputs that wash over the brain, shifting their beliefs while living in the world. The English theologian originally developed this concept when dealing with matters of faith and learning, but the results of his efforts still offer valuable understanding in the political context.

Newman’s idea of the Illative Sense should comfort present-day citizens angered by rapidly shifting policy outcomes that clash with their firm beliefs about what is true, good, and beautiful. Democratic governance requires hosts of ordinary people to form and act on beliefs about a wide range of issues as voters. American political scientist Willmoore Kendall argued that deliberation allows a community of people facing “the necessity of living together” to make decisions about their shared life. Collective deliberation, though, becomes complicated when experience continually reshapes individuals’ convictions, as explained by John Henry Newman. Observations today may spur regret about yesterday’s vote, leading a citizen to cast their ballot differently tomorrow. In the context of drug decriminalization programs, individuals who favored them and elected representatives who supported them did not know what such initiatives would produce until they lived through them. A vote in favor of Oregon’s Measure 110 did not likely represent a person’s settled conviction, informed by a well-stocked Illative Sense, on the issue. Their understanding of decriminalization continued to shift after the measure passed in light of things they saw when driving downtown, stories they heard from neighbors, or new smells encountered while walking in a park. The citizen’s views may well change even before they see data on rising overdose death tolls, though such statistics will feed their ability to use logic to defend their shifting intuitions.

With initiatives like drug decriminalization, citizens have had little time to form deliberate conclusions made stable by an Illative Sense bolstered by practical observations. In unfamiliar territory, a policy deemed good by a community today may be seen as neutral or wrong in a year, based not on fresh arguments but on new embodied experiences. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Newman claimed in an 1841 essay that “Flagrant evils cure themselves by being flagrant.” Public wrongs arise in the short term, even in a healthy community, but Newman trusted that the long-considered reworking of an issue would yield positive outcomes.

Flagrant evils may well endure for much longer than is just and much longer than many people would like. The application of Newman’s hopeful idea to representative government by no means suggests that evil never occurs or that good always triumphs, especially in one lifetime. Democratic institutions can elevate leaders who dismantle them and achieve a dictatorship, as the historical record shows. The careers of such figures, though, tend to reinforce an appreciation for the long-run outcomes produced by an honest press, fair elections, the freedom to assemble, and other liberties. Budding tyrants labor to dismantle those institutions once in power. Would-be dictators can master a community in the short-term confusion prompted by an impoverished Illative Sense, but they recognize that the populace may turn against their program down the road. The authoritarian chieftain must crush public freedom before time and experience allow people to see clearly what is right.

Some prominent public intellectuals, such as Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and Sohrab Ahmari, have in recent years demonstrated a loss of confidence in a community’s ability to gradually produce better policies through representative institutions as people gain experience with unfamiliar issues and measures. These figures have praised and worked with foreign leaders, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who have turned away from liberal democratic norms such as fair elections and independent media. Policy defeats at home on a wide range of matters, including the rise of decriminalization as a response to the substance abuse crisis, motivated people like Deneen, Dreher, and Ahmari to embrace political illiberalism, They and many others hope that a new approach to governance might yield a culture more aligned with their conclusions about the right way to live. Yet issues that often rile postliberal thinkers have only made their way to the heart of American politics in the last few decades. Professors, journalists, and think tank fellows have debated such concerns for some time, but ordinary voters have not had much of a chance to handle such matters at the local level. Individuals need time to reach well-informed convictions because their Illative Sense plays a key role in that process and it feeds on embodied experiences, not high-flying theory or cold logical syllogisms.

The rollback of drug decriminalization laws in Oregon and British Columbia thus provides helpful reminders for citizens who hope that political processes might bring about some right and good in this world. Both those who favor decriminalization and those who oppose it should learn from these short-lived programs that no victory or defeat is final as our representative democracy digests conflicts in novel policy areas. Citizens need to see proposed programs and initiatives put into practice before they can understand if those measures are healthy. A voter can only judge drug decriminalization a wise or unwise policy after it has been implemented, based on a cascade of observations that feed intuitions rather than on abstract reasoning. Many shifts in the law around substance abuse and other current concerns may be necessary before a deliberative consensus emerges. Until then, we do not need to abandon representative government as unable to address flagrant evils, whatever we believe those evils to be.

Stanley Schwartz is an Instructor of History at Cedarville University and a PhD candidate in history at Temple University.


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