Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1919 when the 18th Amendment was ratified banning the manufacture, sale or transport of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. Once the Volstead Act was passed several months later to provide funding for enforcement, it became the official policy of the federal government to prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages within U.S. borders. In theory, that policy should have led to a significant improvement in public health and civil order. In practice, it provoked a period of rampant violence and corruption that did not cease until the 18th Amendment was repealed during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office.
The lesson of Prohibition is that when large numbers of people want something badly enough in a democracy, they are going to get it regardless of whether it is legal. It doesn’t matter whether the thing they want is marijuana or guns or alcohol or abortions; if enough people are willing to pay, the forbidden items will be readily available, and there’s little the government can do to prevent it. Not, at least, as long as it is determined to remain a democratic government. When a political system is organized around the principle of freedom, trying to ban any item that is popular risks undermining the legitimacy of the government rather than the targeted item. Even the odious practice of slavery required a four-year war that nearly destroyed the nation before it could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Both of our national political parties seem ambivalent about accepting this lesson. Democrats (meaning liberals) want to ban guns but make abortion available to pretty much anyone regardless of motive. Republicans (meaning conservatives) want to ban abortion while making guns not merely available but ubiquitous — even in public schools. The latter stance led former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank to quip that the Republican concept of “right to life” began at conception and ended at birth. But Frank and his fellow liberals were not willing to acknowledge the contradiction in their own positions. The simple truth is that the two parties were trying to appeal to different constituencies, one of which cared passionately about personal protection and the other of which cared equally strongly about reproductive freedom. The Supreme Court has ruled that both constituencies have rights grounded in the Constitution.
Even if they didn’t, public-opinion surveys conducted over the past several decades reflect a popular aversion to banning gun ownership, abortion services, or just about any other widely practiced activity. That is why so-called sodomy laws aimed at prohibiting homosexual acts have fallen into disuse, and why it is just a matter of time before your local ABC store will be offering a diverse array of cannabis-based products. Democracies lack both the resources and the will to stop large numbers of people from doing what they want to do, so when the attempt is nonetheless made it usually backfires. That doesn’t mean everything from machine guns to methamphetamine should be legal, but it does mean that once a behavior becomes widespread it’s likely to continue regardless of what laws the White House proposes and Congress passes.