Defending (Local) Prohibition(s)

by Russell Arben Fox on October 27, 2009 · 8 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Jacob Weisberg, in Slate, says that the spirit of Prohibition is dead, and those laws which still maintain elements of that spirit–stopping gay people from marrying, stopping sick people from buying marijuana, stopping businesses from building resorts in Cuba–are on their way to becoming laughingstocks:

The chief reason these prohibitions are falling away is the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness. What’s driving the legalization of gay marriage is not so much the moral argument but the pressures from couples who want to sanctify their relationships, obtain legal benefits, and raise children in a stable environment. What’s advancing the decriminalization of marijuana is not just the demand for pot as medicine but the number of adults—more than 23 million in the past year, according to the most recent government survey—who use it and don’t believe they should face legal jeopardy. What’s bringing the change on Cuba is not just the epic failure of the 48-year-old U.S. embargo, but the demand on the part of Americans who want to go there—whether to visit their relatives, prospect for post-Castro business opportunities, or sip rum drinks at the beach. For similar reasons, there is not likely to be any retreat on the basic legal status—as opposed to tinkering around the margins—of the right to have an abortion or own a gun. Conservatives would be wise to give up on the one, liberals on the other. In each of these cases, popular demand for an individual right is simply too powerful to overcome.

Weisberg makes a decent case, but I think he goes too far: I think the ability of local (and perhaps occasionally state, or rarely even national) communities to democratically speak to what they like and what they don’t is an important principle, one to be defended against the “evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness”:

[T]he “popular demand for an individual right” isn’t necessarily the death-knell for the prohibitionary or sumptuary mindset. [Weisberg] calls prohibition today more about “omission than commission”–meaning, I suppose, that he sees certain policies today (regarding gay marriage, or marijuana, or Cuba) as showing a misguided reluctance to admit the inevitable. But to call the failure of any individual prohibition inevitable is to assume that the individual is the only and the sovereign actor in each and every case, and that’s not true. Individuals are in part made from their environments, and collective environments can be controlled. Any such control will be, of course, either welcomed or resisted by particular individuals, and off we go to the complicated realities of political life. But those complications won’t ever wither away, I think. There’s a tension between the individual and the community, between choice and culture, that’s as old as modernity, if not much older. Weisberg’s “big idea,” by contrast, is just a quick and superficial political judgment about the current state of play in the United States about something much bigger than the country itself.

Anyway, as we used to say on the internets, read the whole thing, if you’re so inclined.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks November 2, 2009 at 4:30 pm

In the Republic of the Front Porch, I suppose it’s inevitable that there’ll be those of a socialist inclination. And, I won’t mind that so much if we can get Arben to help weaken the central gummint and take a calm and reasoned look at the Articles of Confederation.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Thanks for the compliment Bob, I think. But seriously, I thought you’d be all over this! All I’m saying is that sometimes a town or city or state ought to be able to say, “Sorry, that’s not the way we do things here.” Isn’t maintaining a republic partly all about just that?

avatar Bob Cheeks November 2, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Actually, RAF, I was paying you a high compliment! And, yes I get your point, and that’s why I brought up the Articles and should have brought up Nullification.
This is scary, Arben, but I think you’re walkin’ down the street headin’ for my church! I do see a number of republican virtues in your project. Now if we can just thin out that left lean a bit. But, like you, I think society must care for those who truly need help…it’s just degrees we might be arguing over.

avatar Kevin J. Jones November 2, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Weisberg’s contention that prohibition is dead leaves out all sorts of little prohibitionist regulations. NYC has banned trans fats, for instance, while California leads the bans on selling cars with certain low emission standards.

The localist problem is that bans (or permissions) in major population centers have a way of affecting everything else. Activists focus on these populous regions because they think passing their regulations there would force producers to conform to their standards rather than forgo a large market.

My hobby horse of the moment is the effect of anti-discrimination law on media and educational institutions in large cities. Those (prohibitionary!) laws might defang whatever opposition is declared discriminatory, long before any consensus has been reached in the region.

avatar John Médaille November 2, 2009 at 10:20 pm

This sounds good, but I spent 10 years as a city councilman in a town that was dry, then partially wet (restaurants only) and endured a package sale election every three or four years for the last 25 years. It finally passed last year. There was hardly a month that went by without a debate on some restaurant or other violating the word of God by serving wine with dinner. I can tell you from personal experience, there is nothing like good Christian people to make a man cynical.

The irony was that the town was originally founded by Catholics, and was were the local mafia made their homes. But after the war, the town became predominantly Baptist. The Mafia will put up with a lot, but not with that. They moved out, and the town became dry. Until recently, since it is now mainly Spanish.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 3, 2009 at 9:55 am

Medaille, thats not the way I heard it…the way I hear tell is the saying goes like this:
“There is nothing like good Texans to make a man cynical”. Drum roll please.
The old Cowboys stadium a case in point, walking into that sacred monument in the 80′s, one had to traverse the gauntlet of one of the largest tailgate binge drinking manias I’ve ever seen as a result of the stadiums dry location. Instead of most the spectators drunk by the end of the third quarter, at that hallowed edifice most the spectators was drunk before even entering the stadium.

Still, nothing so cheers the August American Professional Sports Spectator as that spectacle of a year or so ago when a certain rabble would appear at a certain ramp atrium at Giants Stadium in the scenic Swamp of north Jersey and thence begin to exhort the young tattooed lovelies in attendance to bare their charms so to speak…. and there would actually be quite a few who would indeed do so , creating a certain Sodomesque prospect for a nice Sunday Family Outing. I suppose this is what is referred to as “inevitable”. Three cheers for inevitable, it brings such pathos to life.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 3, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Three cheers for inevitable, it brings such pathos to life.

Boo, hiss! No! Fight the inevitable! True, we may all be fallen, individualistic consumers down here, but that doesn’t mean that communities across the world are obliged to say, “well, hell, whatever the kids/the bureaucrats/Wal-Mart/Hollywood wants, I guess that’s good enough for us,” and then roll over on command. Sure, any such victories against the “inevitable” will be limited ones, but that doesn’t make them worthless. A while ago, we voters here in Sedgwick County said no to casinos. Has that stopped gambling? Not a bit. Has that stopped other cash-strapped Kansas towns from begging casinos to build in their jurisdiction? Not at all. But it was a chance for us voters, as a community, to say “no” to something we didn’t like, and saying no is a good thing all on it’s own, sometimes.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 3, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Now now Mr. Fox, let us not get them garments in a twist over my unseemly devotions to pathos. I am 100% in favor of your call for the liberal use of the “No” column at the voting booth. In fact, I’d like to circle Foggy Bottom with a giant chain link fence, making it into an official legislative ghetto of sorts and spelling out “NO” in Barbed Wire woven through the chain link fence.

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