Tuesday, November 1, 2011


For a libertarian, the Prohibition years are an especially shameful chapter in American history, a stretch of time when the belief in the power of government to legislate human goodness was enshrined in our Constitution. As a historian interviewed in Ken Burns' three-part documentary Prohibition points out, the 18th Amendment was the first Constitutional amendment that limited freedom rather than expanding it.

Yet both the documentary and the historical period it details raise complicated questions, which we're still faced with today: how do we find a workable solution to a genuine social problem? Is there ever one hard, fast, one-size-fits-all answer to problems like alcohol and drug abuse, childhood obesity, or widespread divorce?

Burns' film makes clear in its first episode, "A Nation of Drunkards," that excessive drinking was widespread throughout the century before Prohibition, and that it gave rise to other evils, most notably domestic violence. The "drunkard culture" accentuated the sharp gender divisions set in place by the notion of "separate spheres," the public and the private world, for men and women. Husbands and wives and courting couples did not drink together, save perhaps for the modest glass of wine at mealtimes. Rather, men gathered in saloons to drink away the pressures of work, while women waited at home; all too often, the men would return home full of fight, ready to pound on their wives and even their children. When advocates of Temperance (a huge number of them women) declared that "alcohol destroys homes," they could point to legions of examples to support their claim, examples that shed a blaring light on the greatest tragedy of addiction: the erosion of the addict's capacity for empathy.

The problem of alcohol abuse, then, was real; few could have denied it. The argument lay in what should be done about it. Some -- the wisest, in this libertarian's point of view -- advocated a case-by-case approach, in which churches and private citizens and organizations would take the lead in helping alcoholics hop on the wagon and stay there. Other favored a broader, wide-sweeping approach that took the decision out of individuals' hands. Instead of working to reduce people's demand for alcohol, these Temperance activists advocated cutting off their supply -- the simplest solution on the surface, and so, the solution that eventually won the day.

Similar battles rage today, and not only concerning the obvious issue of the War on Drugs. Childhood obesity is a problem, most would agree; as youngsters get less exercise and eat more fattening foods, they're afflicted in increasing numbers with health problems usually associated with adults, such as heart disease and diabetes. No one wants to see unhealthy children. But while some would encourage greater education in nutrition that would empower parents and children to make healthier choices, others favor simply taking vending machines that sell candy bars out of schools and other public places, and banning the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking. And so the old Prohibition story goes on: do we allow individuals to decide for themselves, or do we rush to make decisions for them in the firm conviction that we know what's best?

If the history of Prohibition teaches us nothing else, it shows us that where demand exists, supply will follow, whether or not that supply is legal. Freedom is a chaotic thing. Individuals will not always make the best, wisest choices, and they cannot expect the government to step in to protect them from the consequences of their mistakes. Until human nature can be made perfectible by external means -- hint: it never will be -- we must accept that tragedies will occur, and excessive behavior will sometimes destroy lives.

Should we try to prevent as many of these tragedies as possible? Of course. But who is best qualified to do so? Nearly always, the closer the person or group is to the problem, the more likely they are to come up with solutions that actually work. Friends and neighbors are often the best resort. Schools can lend a hand, as can churches, private charities, and even local governments. We are our brother's keepers, but our charity is usually most effective when extended to the individual brothers we have seen, rather than an abstract mass of nameless, faceless brothers we have not seen. To abuse an old cliche, elephants are best eaten a bite at a time.

We may not think of Alexander Hamilton, the great Federalist leader and champion of strong centralized government, as especially libertarian-friendly, but he does offer the following piece of wisdom dear to this libertarian's heart:

"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

Mr. Hamilton, the last word is yours.

No comments:

Post a Comment