The incredible Breaking Bad series came to an end on Sunday night to rave reviews and a television audience of more than 10 million, with millions more online. For those that are not aware, the show is centred around the story of a middle-aged chemistry teacher, who is diagnosed with cancer. The fiscally stretched Walter White then embarks on a career as a ‘cook’ of the drug methamphetamine. He initially resorts to the drug industry as a way to pay for his medical expenses and for the upkeep of his family in the event of his death from his cancer. However, he is rather successful in this new-found capacity and eventually comes to run his own methamphetamine empire, leaving a long trail of blood behind him.
Although the story is a fiction, many in the media have used it to promote some message concerning drugs, morality and even the right left paradigm. I have found many of these messages disturbing, and I can’t help but think many have learnt all the wrong lessons. Particularly worrying was a youtube clip with 50,000 views claiming that Walter White is a ‘hero is the right-wing’. Some however, went the other way in their interpretation. I found Warren Buffet’s assertion that the child-poisoning serial killer Walter White is someone he would be happy to do business with quite odd. Partly due to my obsession with the series, and partly due to the interpretations of it that I find inaccurate, I want to offer a libertarian interpretation of the issues at hand.
Many bloggers have commented that it the inherent evil of man, or the destructive greed of the human race, or the danger of unfettered capitalism that caused the events of Breaking Bad to occur. It is my contention that it is the illegality of drugs in America that caused the horrific events of Breaking Bad to unfold, and that were drugs legal, the events of Breaking Bad, and similar events that often happen across the US, could not occur. To investigate whether or not my claim is true we should consider the case of Walter White in a world where drugs are legal.
If drugs were legal, there would be legitimate businesses providing methamphetamine to their clientele. It is quite possible that Walt, rather than earning a meagre wage as a high school chemistry teacher, would have been picked up by one such business and would earn a far higher salary, whilst still operating within the confines of the law. We know that Walter was an unappreciated chemistry genius; perhaps in the methamphetamine business he would have reached his potential. This career path would have left Walter in a far better position to pay for his treatment upon discovering his cancer; his healthcare might even have been covered by his employer. This option would mean that Walter would still have been providing methamphetamine to customers, but that is probably where the similarities end.
Due to the legitimacy of the drug business, there would be no violence involved. How many people were killed along Walt’s path to empire? The number is in the hundreds, if not the thousands when you consider the countless dealers on the streets. All these deaths could not happen in a transparent market. If it were legal to produce and sell methamphetamine, all drug activity would be under the eye of the law. Production would no longer be in secret underground labs; it would be visible and open to scrutiny. The ‘cooks’ could lobby for safe work environments. The gangs that control areas of high drug use would be replaced by clean drug clinics. Gangs like the drug cartel that employ the Salamanca family, would no longer have a hold over these areas and their power would dry up. Gus Fring’s business would not have been able to operate through violence, and he instead would have had to compete against other companies in the business, in the process driving down costs and improving work environments.
One might say however, that that was not the situation Walt found himself in, and therefore my argument is unfair. Let us say then that when Walt learns he has cancer he is still a chemistry teacher, and is unable to afford the medical expenses necessary to keep himself alive. He could seek the charity of others, which remember actually happens when Elliot and Gretchen offer to pay all his medical bills. His family also offer to help, Hank and Marie offer to share the cost. He could seek a new job to help him pay the bills; admittedly this is unlikely. In the worst case scenario, Walter dies from his cancer within the year. He never becomes a mass murderer, he never tears his family apart, and he never destroys the lives of hundreds of others.
Man always has, and always will, be susceptible to evil, especially when faced with dire circumstances. Of course we should always encourage people never to do wrong, but the most effective guard against immoral action is the free market. We should let the free market do its work in the drug industry. The free market naturally coerces men to act in cooperation with others; one can only profit off satisfying another man’s desire. What one does with their own body is their own choice. The use of drugs is objectively neither right nor wrong, objectively moral or immoral; it is a personal choice.
What if the free market was allowed to function, and Walt decided to create his own perfectly legal methamphetamine empire. What if he succeeded, and made millions upon millions of dollars, securing his family’s future for generations to come. What would we say about such a man? I would suggest we should praise this man immensely. What would we say about someone that created an alcohol business in the same circumstances? Or a pornography based business? Or a weapons manufacturer? Or a company that produced chocolate foods? We can all question the value of some products of the market. The simple answer is, if you don’t like the product, don’t buy it! We all however praise the industry of the men and women that succeed in providing for these markets, and so we should.
Drugs are illegal, and so we get evil Walter White the mass murderer, the child-poisoner, and family destroyer. If drugs were legal, there is a good chance we would get Walter White, the distinguished, accomplished and respected methamphetamine chemist and businessman. I would suggest that if we were to break the oppressive drug laws, we would break the bad Walter White for something altogether better.