Review: ‘The Age of Addiction’ by David Courtwright

The new prohibitionism

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America is a nation of habits. Roughly one in four Americans has drunk to excess in the past month. Twenty-eight million smoke cigarettes daily; 11 million have a pack-a-day habit. Ten million are addicted to gambling. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults are online "almost constantly." We spend roughly six hours a day watching "video" of all kinds, including that consumed by the 80 percent of men and 26 percent of women who are weekly porn users.

When we think about addiction, we usually think about controlled substances: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and so forth. But the number of people who use illicit drugs—on the order of 11 percent of the population, of which 9.6 percentage points are marijuana users—pales in comparison to these figures.

One of the basic conceits of Age of Addiction, the recent book from University of North Florida historian David Courtwright, is that these legitimate—i.e., legally sanctioned—habits are, in important ways, the same as their more-infamous illicit counterparts. They each produce, at least in some people, what he describes as "a pattern of compulsive, conditioned, relapse-prone, and harmful behavior." That some are legal and some are not is not necessarily arbitrary, but it is secondary for Courtwright's purposes to this underlying principle.

This addictive paradigm has suffused modern culture. Humans have always sought out pleasures in the natural world—alcohol, tobacco, and gambling are older than civilization, never mind the "oldest profession." But the chemical and psychological mechanisms that make these pleasures pleasurable were never so central to commerce as they are today. Nor was technology so finely tuned to driving the feedback loop of addiction.

"The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'" Sean Parker, Facebook founder, said at an Axios gathering in 2017. "And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever."

This idea—of commerce which uses our psychology and neurochemistry to drive profits—is what Courtwright labels "limbic capitalism." (This for the limbic system in the brain, which many scientists believe plays a substantial role in addiction.) The wino buying straight from the supermarket is limbic capitalism, but so too is the video game company selling digital slot machines to children, or the social media site trading addictive outrage for clicks.

The emergence of limbic capitalism is in part thanks to technological advancement. There is a natural connection between early methods of refinement, by which 17th century chemists concentrated alcohol, and the hyper-pure synthetic drugs of 2019. Similarly, the "forty to sixty thousand" websites estimated to be selling illicit prescription pills in 2014 are simply an outgrowth of the earliest global trade routes, which ran on addictive goods like tobacco, opium, and rum.

At the same time, limbic capitalism is as much a product of ideas as material causes. The decisive moment for its emergence came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the rise of industrial chemistry and modern psychology obliged the world to grapple with their moral and political implications. Opposition to vice was a rallying cry for a diverse group: Victorians and Progressives, yes, but also prominent political figures including Mohandas Gandhi. Though they disagreed about why, anti-vice activists knew that modern pleasures posed real and potent threats to their families and communities.

As we can see from the vantage point of today, they lost. The "pro-vice" activists, as Courtwright terms them, won in large part through the bevy of arguments now so common that school children could recite them: "personal liberty, cost, forbidden fruit, the failure of legal restrictions, and everybody does it." On the backs of such arguments, a whole vice industry was built, branded, and sold to the world.

To say that limbic capitalism won the war of ideas is really to say that its beneficiaries won the fight to say what "freedom" consists in. Opposition to vice has become associated in the popular consciousness—not necessarily wrongly—with everything from the velvet-gloved nanny state to brutally sterile eugenicist totalitarianism. Liberty becomes the right to smoke, drink, gamble, do drugs, no matter the consequences. Freedom becomes the freedom to harm yourself.

The dominance of this paradigm has left us ill-equipped to offer criticism of new vices as they emerge. Perhaps Facebook did lure millions of Americans into giving up their private information for the dopamine rush of likes. But they freely chose to give that information up, the retort goes, and so they have no one to blame but themselves.

The "pro-vice" account of freedom is shallow in its conclusion that the only things that can enslave us are other people, that we can never be slaves to our whims. But it is shallow in another way too: It implies that freedom can never be meaningful except for the individual. There is no freedom of a community to rule itself, to say what debilitating substances it will and will not tolerate; there is only the freedom of each person to, as Robert Frost put it, "go to hell in his own way."

It is perhaps telling that one of the most successful exercises in political self-rule in American history was Prohibition. For thirteen years, we conducted what Herbert Hoover called a "great and social economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." In its effects, Prohibition is generally regarded as a failure (although perhaps unfairly). But it was undeniably a genuine moment of self-government, something that has grown regrettably rare in the modern era. It reflects what Antonin Scalia once called "American democracy its best," the process by which citizens debate the rules of our society, and ultimately put them to a well-ordered vote.

"Prohibition was America's good culture war, one fought by democratic means with reasonably fair and open legal rules," the late William Stuntz put it. "Best of all, its resolution was more democratic and hence politically healthier than the outcomes of other culture wars, past and present alike."

Courtwright ends the book with a call for moderation, both in what we consume and how we regulate: "in politics as in life, we should be against excess." Indeed, an outright return to prohibition on vices seems as politically unfeasible as it would be practically ill-advised.

But just as there are new vices, there are also new enemies of vice. Their agenda must be as much philosophy as policy, a concern not just with making new laws but rearticulating the right of communities to make them. In short, a new prohibitionism, such as there is one, must concern itself with restoring a right understanding of what freedom actually means.