The Self-Abnegation of the New Prohibitionists

“Change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice.”

Algernon Swinburne

Today’s political elite can truly be called the new prohibitionists. To paraphrase writer Anne Hingston, they “Restrict first, discuss never.”

Recent history, from the time of Prohibition in 1920s’ America, has demonstrated that attempts by the state to engage in social engineering are doomed to failure. People will always get what they want. And in so doing strengthen the so-called criminal elements among us. The only proper role for the state is to protect citizens from violence and from threats of, or incitement to, violence.

To those who would argue that the health costs of indulgence in tobacco, alcohol, and drugs are a strain on the health-care system, we would remind them that citizens who indulge in hedonistic pleasures pay enormous consumption taxes on the products they buy—eight times greater on average than “virtuous” citizens—most of which go to support the health-care system and environmental agencies. They also tend to die younger thereby being less of a burden on the chronic-care system. That is their choice. And the freedom to choose—even badly—is a foundational principle of a free society as Justice Louis Brandeis reminded us all. 

When Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said in 1968 that government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation—just before removing homosexuality from his nation’s Criminal Code—he meant that it had no role regulating actions of consenting adults. Not everything is going to be perfect in life. Not every problem can be solved by legislation. No politician should pretend it can and be allowed to put into force straight-jacket law that seeks to micro-manage every aspect of our lives. 

What the new prohibitionists share is an anti-liberal sentiment in that they seek to curtail the basic liberties of natural law that is the patrimony of every human being. They get away with it because too many of us have surrendered to the sovereignty of self-abnegation.

Those who try should be exposed for what they truly are. Unimaginative and cowardly functionaries staggering from election to election who—fearful of tackling the vested interests on the really important issues necessary to protect the public good—hope that creating some body of fear will provide just enough fodder for some publicity come election time. As Tacitus wrote, “When the state is most impotent, the laws are most multiplied.”

Some governments make noises about decriminalizing marijuana, but at the same time propose to give police unlimited powers to stop drivers for random drug checks in their cars. Others, in an effort to placate women’s rights groups, legislate laws permitting workers to sue employers for the novel tort of “psychological harassment.” A politician’s friend dies in an inline-skating accident so everyone is quickly forced to wear a helmet if they take a bicycle or scooter. His colleague wants teens to stay in school so he orders them not to drop out till age 18, no matter how little they want to be in class and no matter what their parents think. A big city mayor authorizes police cameras at street level in his city’s university quarter ostensibly to curtail drug sales, but that in fact violate the privacy of all citizens by indiscriminately capturing images of the activities of all passersby.

Government’s role must be one of persuasion and education, not compulsion and coercion… The role of the state is to protect us from each other, not from ourselves.

What the new prohibitionists share is an anti-liberal sentiment in that they seek to curtail the basic liberties of natural law that is the patrimony of every human being. They get away with it because too many of us have surrendered to the sovereignty of self-abnegation. We have become a people plagued by a self-doubt driven by a jealousy of others’ self-belief. And in the process have created a self-imposed tyranny that mutes individual integrity and conscience and trades them for the false security demanded by state-sponsored bureaucratic consensus.

Modigliani’s painting, Dylan Thomas’ poetry, Hemingway’s novels, and even Tom Paine’s polemics would be lost to the ages if they had to survive on alfalfa sprouts and vitamins and succumb to political correctness and temperance. Our lives would be the worse for it, devoid of passion or purpose.

Government’s role must be one of persuasion and education, not compulsion and coercion, no matter how odious a citizen’s personal habit may be. The dark side of our governors is that they engage in unbridled intervention in matters of private domain to punish the governed into virtuous conduct. But legislators don’t know what’s right for us. They barely know what’s right for themselves. The role of the state is to protect us from each other, not from ourselves.

As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Those who would trade permanent liberty for temporary security shall, in the end, have neither liberty nor security.”


Image credit: From “The Libertine,” Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a licentious poet in the court of King Charles II of England.