Moral issues can’t be legislatedPublished 10:27am Monday, October 10, 2011
If you have ever wondered why we should study history, then you haven’t watched the latest Ken Burns series, “Prohibition.”
If the series has taught, or at least reinforced anything, it is that it is next to impossible to legislate morality, and it is impossible to enforce a law that most people disagree should be one.
Burns, who has made a stunning series of historical programs on PBS, such as The Civil War, Baseball and The National Parks, has hit another home run with “Prohibition.”
It chronicles the events leading up to the passage of a constitutional amendment making alcohol illegal, and the events after it.
The multiple-hour series essentially boils the 13-year experiment of making a product that a large percentage of the population enjoys down to one word: a joke.
It was understandable why many in the United States felt that the issue of alcoholism had to be dealt with. According to the documentary, by the late 1800s, the average American over the age of 18 drank more than 80 bottles of distilled alcohol (whiskey or something like it) per year. That’s more than one a week.
In other words, the hearts of those who wanted to curtail alcohol use were in the right place.
Alcoholism had had an extremely negative effect on society: lost jobs, domestic abuse and the neglect and, in many cases abandonment of families by husbands.
By removing alcohol from society, the “teetotalers” felt, they could make better men.
Anyone who understands alcoholism, however, also knows that the only person who can make an alcoholic stop drinking is the alcoholic.
And almost from the minute the law went into effect — literally, since someone stole a truck of whiskey in Washington D.C. shortly after midnight — until the amendment was repealed 13 years later, the law was broken nationwide, millions of times over.
And because most law enforcement officials didn’t agree with the law, barely had enough resources to enforce real crimes, and often were bribed to ignore it, enforcement of prohibition also became a joke.
What was worse, many of those who were petty criminals prior to prohibition found a way to become rich. And because much of the “bootlegged” alcohol that everyone drank wasn’t necessarily the safest, many became ill or died because of it.
It’s a tough pill to swallow. Clearly, alcoholism can devastate families. It would be nice if everyone could drink in moderation, or simply abstain. But no matter how many people wish it to be true, in a free society (even in many societies that are not free), it just can’t happen.
So when a group becomes vocal about legislating what is basically a moral issue — and you know the ones I’m talking about — I would hope that the cooler heads would prevail, think about our history of legislating morality, and decide otherwise.
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Speaking of moral issues, I was pleased to see a group of Republicans voice their opposition to the gay marriage amendment.
Their argument: a party who consistently argues for less government should not want to pass an amendment that would have government dictate how people should live their lives. Makes sense to me.
Joel Myhre is The Journal’s Publisher. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org