With Illinois poised to become the fifteenth state to legalize gay marriage (when Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law on November 20), the tide of public opinion about legal rights for same-sex couples seems to be changing at a rapid rate. In a recent NY Times article, Ross Douthat argues that this trend is also evident in other cultural debates, including attitudes toward the legalization of gambling and marijuana.
Since 1990 when casinos were isolated to Nevada and Atlantic City, almost half of states have legalized and developed commercial casinos. Rather than a Hangover-style bachelor weekend in Las Vegas, for many people, casino-going is a much more mundane experience, a regular weekend excursion.
Additionally, the public opinion ratings about marijuana legalization have grown at the same rate as approval for gay marriage. Indeed, in addition to the recreational legalization of pot in Washington and Colorado, twenty other states have already legalized medical marijuana.
Douthat uses late sociologist Robert Bellah’s concept of “expressive individualism” to explain these attitudinal and legislative changes. Expressive individualism refers to the notion of being free to express oneself through rich experiences and feelings without restrictions. For Douthat, expressive individualism highlights “the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy.”
However, in the midst of this growing support for individual choice and freedom, Douthat cautions against the social consequences of some of these new policies. He argues,
Previous societies made distinction between liberty and license that we have become loath to draw—because what seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak.