July/August 2009


A Nation of Addicts

WHEN I WAS a young man, I worked for a while as a drug counselor, first in a methadone clinic, and then in a heroin detoxification unit. I have seen and know something about addiction. I later earned a PhD in political science, in the process acquiring an idea of what the Founders of the American political system were trying to accomplish. If we take seriously the news that Americans are “addicted to oil,” it means we have become a nation of addicts, and the question that must be addressed is what a democracy composed of addicts portends for our future. Reconciling a population of addicts with the principles and practices of the American political system will not be easy. In fact, it will be impossible: democracy wasn’t built for addicts.

The Founders of our democracy bequeathed to us a legacy of cultural values that display the diversity of their social perspectives. One group argued that politics was about the public, patriotic pursuit of the common good of the community. Americans were viewed as citizens who would be willing to sacrifice for the general welfare. Other Founders asserted that humans are essentially individuals and not community members. These consumers are primarily motivated by the passionate pursuit of their economic self-interests and should be given the freedom to seek their unique pleasures in their unique ways. Over the years, we as a nation have never totally accepted nor totally rejected either vision. We have ignored the logical contradictions and constructed a society where people are encouraged to be both patriotic and self-interested.

But where do addicts fit into this picture? Surely the addict cannot be considered a virtuous citizen. The essence of citizenship is a concern for the community and a willingness to forgo personal pleasure for the common good. The addict cares nothing about others or tomorrow, and for this reason, addiction and civic virtue are antithetical. Either the craving for the addictive substance will destroy all other pursuits, or the republic must cure the addiction and convert the addict into a citizen.

On the surface there may appear similarities between the addict and today’s consumer, but these melt with closer scrutiny. Like an addict, the consumer may be a pleasure-seeking (an economist would say “utility maximizing”) individual, but consumers know there are costs and benefits associated with their various choices, and they are rational enough to engage in calculations regarding these trade-offs. For the addict, there is no alternative to acquiring the addictive substance, and that is why they will pay any cost and ignore any harm their addiction will cause. Economic markets, built upon the assumption of rational consumers, are institutions ill suited to restrain addicts bent on ever greater overindulgence, even unto death.

If America is “addicted to oil” we will have to reach deep into our Founders’ legacies for the strength to struggle against what we have become, for the truth is that there is a citizen, a consumer, and an addict in each of us. Citizens and consumers might grimace at the difficult policy choices lying ahead, but they will acquiesce in the face of necessity and move to have tough energy policies that restrict our addiction to oil put into practice.

It is urgently important that Americans not let our inner addict supersede our citizen and consumer. Imagine, just for a second, what would happen if we let the addicts run the methadone clinics and the detoxification units. Imagine what will become of America if we let our oil addiction determine the fate of our democracy.

Franklin Kalinowski’s book-in-progress is Environmental Legacies: An Ecological Interpretation of the Constitution. A different version of this essay appeared in The North American Review.