By John Baden
People employ state power when moral persuasion fails. Politically legitimized coercion and constraint can generate hugely beneficial reform. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 is one example; environmental laws provide other examples.
In contrast, America's Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol for consumers' pleasure, was a huge failure. Industrial alcohol remained legal after the 1920 Volstead Act and medical use was often tolerated, giving rise to winking and cheating.
The predictable consequences were negative on balance: petty and organized crime, loss of tax revenue, and illness and death from tainted substitutes.
John D. Rockefeller noted, "...many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a [new] level."
In addition to the social, cultural, and economic costs of Prohibition, the liturgical churches, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic, challenged its moral legitimacy. Naturally, the soft drink industry supported "dry laws" as did bootleggers. When the results of this failed experiment became overwhelming, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933.
There's a parallel between this failed effort and current laws outlawing recreational drugs. Powerful constituencies have developed on several sides, including law enforcement. However honorable the intent and sincere the convictions of those using government to channel or constrain behavior, legal prohibitions naturally and normally generate political corruption and illegal suppliers. Across time and cultures, that's the result.
Given America's drift, and now run, from the libertarian principles of our founders, many individuals fear additional prohibitions. For example, on November 6th, the NYT wrote of a substantial surge in gun sales as buyers become "concerned that an Obama administration will curtail their right to bear arms." A Houston gun shop owner declared, "[Obama] wants to take our guns and create a socialist society." The FBI reported that, during election week, background checks used to approve gun purchases increased 49 percent compared to the same week in 2007.
On November 10th the WSJ published this: "Last week President-elect Obama's Web site...posted his administration's agenda for curtailing the Second Amendment rights of law abiding Americans, thereby validating the concerns of gun owners, sportsmen and firearms enthusiasts all across the country." A December poll by Southwick Associates found that 80 percent of shooters expect the new administration to make the purchase of firearms more difficult.
However valid these fears, on January 16th Fox News reported that, "President-elect...Obama's election has spurred a surge in gun sales...as gun owners brace for what they believe will be a new era of gun control in Washington."
Some academic friends attribute this to the paranoia of gun owners. But sometimes people really are out to control or constrain you. And advocacy groups such as the NRA have strong incentives to generate concern.
Consider attention given to Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, Obama's pick for OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. I admire Cass' work even when I disagree. Friends at the University of Chicago speak so highly of him that I've invited him to FREE's conferences.
Equally informed, honest people often have policy disagreements. For example, consider Sunstein's 2007 speech reported in the Harvard Crimson:
"We ought to ban hunting, I suggest, if there isn't a purpose other than sport and fun. That should be against the law. It's time now."
It is logically possible to be anti-hunting and yet support private gun ownership. Last June Cass wrote in a Boston Globe column, "To be sure, everyone should agree that the Second Amendment creates some kind of individual right." Cass may be an enthusiastic target shooter. Only Click and Clack of NPR's "Car Talk" support the fictive "Save the Skeet Foundation" However, those who value gun ownership see a short step from anti-hunting to anti-gun.
If people anticipated a return to Prohibition, many would stock up on Scotch and wine. Likewise with guns and ammo. And unlike wine, if properly cared for guns last and work well for many decades.
Our Second Amendment is based on fear of abusive government, not duck hunting. Many find personal defense increasingly important. Friends of liberty and security act on these considerations. It's naïve to ignore these philosophically and historically justified forces.
John Baden is Chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE), based in Bozeman, MT.
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