I am belatedly watching Prohibition, a production of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which first aired on PBS in October. The program, in typical Burns style, delivers history in easy-to-swallow doses. I have seen only one of the three episodes, but that episode whets my appetite for the others because it added much to my sketchy knowledge of the events that led to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.
There is a libertarian slant to Prohibition, though perhaps not a deliberate one. For all that Prohibition says about the evils of “demon rum,” it says more about the evils and unintended consequences of governmental efforts to dictate private behavior. One of the talking heads points out that prohibition was as much a brainchild of “progressives” as it was of religious fundamentalists.
Although eugenics is not mentioned in Prohibition, it looms in the background. For eugenics — like prohibition of alcohol and, later, the near-prohibition of smoking — is symptomatic of the “progressive” mentality. That mentality is paternalistic, through and through. And “progressive” paternalism finds its way into the daily lives of Americans through the regulation of products and services — for our own good, of course. If you can think of a product or service that you use (or would like to use) that is not shaped by paternalistic regulation or taxes levied with regulatory intent, you must live in a cave.
However, the passing acknowledgement of “progressivism” as a force for the prohibition of alcohol is outweighed by the attention given to the role of “evangelicals” in the enactment of prohibition. I take this as a subtle swipe at anti-abortion stance of fundamentalist Protestants and adherents of the “traditional” strands of Catholicism and Judaism. Here is the “logic” of this implied attack on pro-lifers: Governmental interference in a personal choice is wrong with respect to the consumption of alcohol and similarly wrong with respect to abortion.
By that “logic,” it is wrong for government to interfere in or prosecute robbery, assault, rape, murder and other overtly harmful acts, which — after all — are merely the consequences of personal choices made by their perpetrators. Not even a “progressive” would claim that robbery, assault, etc., should go unpunished, though he would quail at effective punishment.
Not that “progressivism” is a thing of logic. It is, as many commentators have noted, a shifting set of attitudes. A “progressive” (or “liberal” or leftist) is simply a person who adheres to the current set of attitudes — the “progressive” program du jour — which the “progressive” seeks to impose by force, for our own good. The essential character of “progressivism” is paternalism wedded to statism.
George Will puts it this way:
Obama, an unfettered executive wielding a swollen state, began and ended his [state of the union] address by celebrating the armed forces. They are not “consumed with personal ambition,” they “work together” and “focus on the mission at hand” and do not “obsess over their differences.” Americans should emulate troops “marching into battle,” who “rise or fall as one unit.”
Well. The armed services’ ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.
Progressive presidents use martial language as a way of encouraging Americans to confuse civilian politics with military exertions, thereby circumventing an impediment to progressive aspirations — the Constitution and the patience it demands. As a young professor, Woodrow Wilson had lamented that America’s political parties “are like armies without officers.” The most theoretically inclined of progressive politicians, Wilson was the first president to criticize America’s founding. This he did thoroughly, rejecting the Madisonian system of checks and balances — the separation of powers, a crucial component of limited government — because it makes a government that cannot be wielded efficiently by a strong executive.
Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He complained about “the three-horse team of the American system”: “If one horse lies down in the traces or plunges off in another direction, the field will not be plowed.” And progressive plowing takes precedence over constitutional equipoise among the three branches of government. Hence FDR’s attempt to break the Supreme Court to his will by enlarging it.
In his first inaugural address, FDR demanded “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” He said Americans must “move as a trained and loyal army” with “a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.” The next day, addressing the American Legion, Roosevelt said it was “a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace.” In such a time, dissent is disloyalty….
Obama, aspiring to command civilian life, has said that in reforming health care, he would have preferred an “elegant, academically approved” plan without “legislative fingerprints on it” but “unfortunately” he had to conduct “negotiations with a lot of different people.” His campaign mantra “We can’t wait!” expresses progressivism’s impatience with our constitutional system of concurrent majorities. To enact and execute federal laws under Madison’s institutional architecture requires three, and sometimes more, such majorities. There must be majorities in the House and Senate, each body having distinctive constituencies and electoral rhythms. The law must be affirmed by the president, who has a distinctive electoral base and election schedule. Supermajorities in both houses of Congress are required to override presidential vetoes. And a Supreme Court majority is required to sustain laws against constitutional challenges.
“We can’t wait!” exclaims Obama, who makes recess appointments when the Senate is not in recess, multiplies “czars” to further nullify the Senate’s constitutional prerogative to advise and consent, and creates agencies (e.g., Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board and Dodd-Frank’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) untethered from legislative accountability.
Like other progressive presidents fond of military metaphors, he rejects the patience of politics required by the Constitution he has sworn to uphold. (“Obama to the Nation: Onward Civilian Soldiers,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2011)
* * *
Ten-Plus Commandments of Liberalism, er, Progressivism
The Pathology of Academic Leftism
Diagnosing the Left
The Modern Presidency: A Tour of American History
An FDR Reader
Parsing Political Philosophy
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Fascism and the Future of America
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Selection Bias and the Road to Serfdom
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
The Mind of a Paternalist
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
Save Me from Self-Appointed Saviors
In Defense of the 1%
A Nation of (Unconstitutional) Laws