The 18th Amendment holds the US record for legislative stupidity. While a high-school student could probably find a dozen equally stupid laws within half an hour, without turning down the volume on his iPod, none of the other examples of seriously stupid stuff made it into the Constitution. Other laws, judicial decisions and executive orders may match the 18th for breadth and depth, but nothing yet has equaled its record for height.
Prohibition was supposed to rid the country of all evil, or at least all the evil that was around in the days before comic books and video games. It didnt. About the only lasting benefit of prohibition was some good H.L. Mencken quotes. Mr. Mencken, a journalist and acerbic social critic who said, among other things, The trouble with Puritans is not that they want to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think, didnt need the assistance. Even so, theres a lesson that can be learned from the Temperance Marchers: Its possible to win. Whatever else may be said about the Anti-Saloon League and the Womans Christian Temperance Union, they had a cause, and they carried it into the Constitution.
Some of their tactics were inappropriatethe notion that its possible to reduce violence and crime through the physical destruction of local watering holes is lacking in some of the finer points of rational thought. But, while Carrie Nation was wielding her hatchet in Wichita, which may explain why Kansas still shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, other temperance advocates were busy distributing leaflets and offering educational programs. The prohibitionists took their time, and eventually, enough people concluded that other peoples drinking was harmful to get the amendment passed. This, of course, was in a more leisurely time, before cellular phones, wireless broadband and the 24-hour news cycle. When there were issues of social disagreement, the parties on different sides actually took the time to discuss the factsCarrie Nation and her chant of smash, Ladies, SMASH! always excepted. It was also a time before Zogby, Gallup, Rasmussen and Quinnipiac; a time when people had to have thoughts before they knew what they were thinking.
Consider off-shore drilling. Its fairly obvious that over the next decade, we can do more to lower the price of gasoline at the pump by replacing an old Ford Crown Victoria police car with a Chevy Malibu Hybrid than anything offshore drilling can do. Conservation can lower demand which will lower pricesnow. Replacing old fuel inefficient government vehicles by buying energy efficient automobiles made in plants in Michigan and Ohio would lower the price of gasoline by reducing demand, while offering an essential economic boost to depressed areas and at-risk corporations. Reducing demand has the same effect as increasing supply, and has the advantage of a possible 10-year head start. There may be major flaws to this reasoning, but there hasnt been a discussion. Instead, somebody looked at the polls that said 67% of people believe that resuming off-shore drilling will lower gasoline prices, and the Democrats raised the white flag. Instead of making a sincere effort to present facts, educate, and enlist public support behind rational policy decisions, weve had government by windsock.
The economics of international trade have been altered by increased transportation costs and the change in currency exchange rates, but the topic is still worth discussing, or at least presenting the information for intelligent evaluation. Instead, the subject has been left for Lou Dobbs. Theres a world of evidence that a universal health program would be far less costly than our current non-system, prolong lives and be a lot less frustrating for all concerned, but in the presidential primaries only Rep. Kucinich raised the subject, and Sen. Edwards, whose health care plan was still better than what were left with, said that his proposal could be converted to a single-payer plan when the country was ready. He never explained how the country would ever get readyhe needed his powers of persuasion for other subjects.
Serious discussion of public issues is still around, but it has a limited number of participants. For the most part, weve reduced policy discussions to 30 seconds or 25 words or lesswhichever tests better with focus groups. Our political campaigns, on both sides, focus on selling people, not programs and not policies. Politicians and parties on both sides have been reduced to selling themselves like laundry detergent, complete with the obligatory warnings not to get the stuff in your eyes, but no hint of the chemical composition.
In the two examples above, energy conservation versus drilling, and public versus private financing of health care, its fairly obvious that the progressive alternative is more effective, but nobody has made a serious attempt to bring the case before the general public. More than that, nobody has been willing to make a fight to deliver the message. If 67% of the public has the impression that increased offshore drilling can lower gasoline prices, it means two things:
1) 67% of the public is paying enough attention to have an opinion.
2) Somebody is doing a much better job than the conservation advocates at molding public opinion.
The answer isnt to throw in the towel, its to take a lesson from the Temperance Marchers and work at revising public opinion. It takes longer, but, with the obvious exception of the Volstead Act, its worth the effort.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.
From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 15, 2008
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