Archived Story

Moral issues can’t be legislated

Published 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— literally, since someone stole a truck of whiskey in Washington D.C. shortly after midnight — until the amendment was repealed 13 years later, the law was broken nationwide, millions of times over.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.

• • •

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

  • BWD

    “So when a group becomes vocal about legislating what is basically a moral issue — and you know the ones I’m talking about”

    We do???? So Ken Burns, the Hollywood Director who can’t get a job doing anything else is your hero and moral legislative annalist? And you really think ‘Prohibition’ makes your point on morality?

    Laws are standards, moral standards society chooses to set. Did you miss that memo, Joel?

    Without morals Joel, what-do-you-have? Without laws to support morality, what-do-you-have?

  • iramsgrandson

    Dave, the government can’t force me to have morals. I got those from my parents, my church, and my own sense of what is right. If you need the Gov’t to force morals on you, you are a pretty poor human being.
    Without laws requiring morality – I have self control.
    Without it you have nothing

  • Swede

    Is lying a moral issue? It is a misdemeanor to lie to a police officer.

    By not legislating morality, it is easy for an immoral man to be a legislator.

    “There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge (1965). So they got together and Barack Obama Junior was born (1961). So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama.” ~ Obama 2009

    This was not a “campaign promise”, it was a simple, childish, lie; the sign of a compulsive liar. This same man promotes abortions and protests that create public chaos.

    • Walt Henry

      A lie? Because of a change in attitudes towards race a black man could father the baby of a white women without being lynched. A white woman could be seen in public with a black man without having her head shaved. A baby of mixed race could grow to become something other than a dancer, a porter on a train or a shoe shiner.

      • Swede

        The point is that 0bama claimed that his parent met in Selma, AL, in 1965. That is 4 years after his birth in 1961. 0bama made up a story to impress the crowd.

  • Phaedrus

    Dave: “the Hollywood Director who can’t get a job doing anything else” – Seriously, that’s your criticism of him? First, why would he look for another job if he likes the one he has? Second, how do you know? Were you on a hiring committee or something, and determined, all on your own, that there’s no way this guy could get a job anywhere, doing anything else? Hmm…

    And you do know, “documentary: a film or TV program presenting the facts about a person or event.” So why is that a bad source? Because you think he’s a “leftist” and yet, if you’d seen any of the film you’d know that he goes to great length in explaining how groups from the political left and right worked together on this one issue, where they just happened to agree.

    So the question clearly isn’t about whether or not morality informs our laws, because that’s clearly the case. The question is about WHO’S morality can be used to inform the laws. That’s where the brilliance of “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion” shines its brightest. No morality gets a privileged position when making laws, so the moral laws that we decide to enforce can only be those laws where all (or, in a nation where people vote, the majority of) the different moral positions agree, e.g. Prohibition.
    Given the problems associated with enforcing Prohibition (that the general public basically ignored the law), people realized that this went too far in regulating private behavior and was repealed.

    This clearly brings us to the second issue, the distinction between the “public” and “private” realms. Clearly we can regulate things in the public realm. For example, you can’t walk down Lincoln Ave. naked drinking beer (well, you can, but you should expect the police to show up and escort you someplace else), but you can walk around your living room naked drinking beer (if you family would allow it). Unless, of course, you have a big picture window that faces the street, in which case there would be a request for you to make your activities even more private (or, hopefully, you’d just close the curtains). The point is, there are all kinds of rules for public life (some are convenience, some moral, some etiquette, etc.), so it’s a legitimate activity of the state to regulate public actions. Private actions should be regulated to the extent that the activities conform to the principle of no harm being caused (with harm covering mental, physical or psychological elements – something that all moral systems can agree with (or they wouldn’t, I wouldn’t think, be moral systems.

    So Greg turns out to be right, “the government can’t force me to have morals,” but it can give you the choice. Either you follow these minimum moral requirements (don’t rape, steal, murder, etc.), or we’re going to lock you up. So they can’t force you to have a moral code, but they can enforce a moral code.

    And yes Mike, lying is a moral issue, and there are multiple ways for someone to lie:
    1.a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
    2.something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture: His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one. inaccurate or false statement.

    So Mike, if you can’t provide evidence that Obama intended to deceive people about the issue (definition 1 – that is, you can’t it’s not an anecdote told to illustrate the point of a story, as Larry suggests), then it seems like you’re violating the second sense of the definition, conveying a false impression. Those that live in glass-houses shouldn’t throw rocks.

    Hey – aren’t you the same guys that are usually yelling about “keeping government out of our lives”? Of course, that seems to mean, for conservatives anyway, that we need to deregulate public spaces like business and anything related to the environment, and increase regulation of private spaces. But doesn’t that strike you as odd?

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