“You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.”
When the man who said that, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was born on this day 85 years ago, this nation was in the midst of a great experiment to do just that, legislate morality. It was a stupendous failure and one we apparently learned absolutely nothing from.
One day after and 10 years before King’s birth, on Jan. 16, 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Nine months later and despite a veto by then President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed the Volstead Act intended to provide enforcement of what came to be known as Prohibition.
We all know what happened next and was probably best summed up by Will Rogers who said, “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”
The sale and manufacture of alcohol went underground and, by all accounts, the consumption went up. As any parent can tell you, ordering a child not to do something is almost sure to make them do it at the first opportunity.
Organized crime became big business, raking in billions of dollars in alcohol sales, and public corruption became the norm as politicians and law enforcement officers looked the other way in exchange for hefty bribes. Those who tried to stand up to the gangsters were dealt with, usually with a bullet.
And those determined to drink found other ways to procure their vice, usually from homemade brews cooked up in unsanitary conditions that would make “Breaking Bad’s” meth lab look like a major research facility. According to historians, more than 10,000 people died during Prohibition from drinking wood alcohol and many more were blinded by the concoctions.
So after a 30-year failed experiment, the states ratified another constitutional amendment, the 21st, repealing Prohibition in 1933. States began to regulate and tax the sale of alcohol. In Mississippi alone, taxes on alcohol in addition to permits and regulation fees as well as the sale itself since this state sells all alcohol available here, brought in about $113 million to the state’s coffers in 2007, according to a report by the Stennis Institute of Government.
So, to repeat what Dr. King and others have said many times, you can’t legislate morality. You can regulate it, but you can’t eradicate what you may consider the source of that immorality by fiat.
And, while we’re on the subject of failed experiments to do just that, let me leave you with another quote, this one from the late William F. Buckley, an ultra-conservative if there ever was one. “Marijuana prohibition,” Buckley said, “has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.”
Maybe with the legalization of marijuana by voters in Colorado and Washington, we’re finally beginning to see the end of yet another failed experiment in legislating morality.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.