Sometimes New Laws Are Okay
When societal issues arise, often the first and most popular response is, “We need a law to protect us!” Most libertarians shun the idea of more laws as they see legislation as restricting freedom. I agree with that for the most part, but when used sparsely and directed appropriately, laws can effect positive change by expanding and protecting individual liberties. Let’s consider what that might have looked during The Temperance Movement, one of my favorite subjects in history.
The Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, spawned a number of new laws and reforms in the United States. Arguably, the two most well-known reforms of the time were alcohol prohibition and women's suffrage. As for prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment took effect in January of 1920, banning the “manufacture, sale and transportation” of alcohol. Prohibition is often used to prove the failure of laws regarding morality, but we’ll look at why prohibition was pushed in the first place, which could also help explain its downfall.
Imagine you are a lower- or middle-class woman in the 1910s living in Chicago with your husband and four children. Your husband has a decent job in a factory but spends hours at the company saloon each night to wind down from his hard day’s work. On many nights, your once kind husband comes home to rambunctious children and in a drunken rage, beats them. As a woman, you have no right to stop him as they are his children. In the eyes of law enforcement, he has the right to raise his children as he wishes. Your husband then focuses his attention on you, expecting you to perform your “wifely duties”. If you don’t, he abuses you and takes what he wants, raping you. Maybe you knew it was a bad time of the month, considering the likelihood of becoming pregnant (although maybe not, since the Comstock Act prevented such knowledge from being spread) but that knowledge doesn’t matter to your drunken husband. Now you might possibly have another mouth to feed, which is alright because your husband has a job with manageable income, right? Maybe, but he wastes it at the saloons every night. And he’s sexually violent. And he’s abusive with the kids. And rent is due. And the family is hungry. Why? What’s the culprit? “Alcohol!”
You can predict where this scenario led: home abortions, starving children that they went to work in factories to try to survive, and a large number of deaths. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union blamed these issues and more on alcohol, pleading for a new law. Unfortunately, the society of the time ignored a very important key factor to this situation: the problem. The problem wasn’t alcohol; it was abuse, and women have a natural right not to be aggressed against. Instead of creating laws against alcohol, laws against rape and domestic violence would have better addressed the problem. And this illustrates the difference between worthwhile and morally defendable laws that protect person and property and irresponsible laws that then ban trade and consumption wholesale, resulting in violence and death.
Another well-known reform of the Progressive Era was women’s suffrage, which happened in August of 1920, seven months after prohibition began. This is a wonderful example of how legislation can be used to expand individual liberties. Until the Progressive Era, women were seen as second-class citizens. Especially once married, as a woman would lose most of her rights to her husband, including rights over her body, children, income, and assets she once had. And in most states, a woman could not vote. This sheer lack of civil rights for women in the 19th and early 20th century led to a hunger for more rights and involvement in politics. Ultimately, women fought (sometimes, brutally) for and gained political recognition of their rights that should have always been recognized in the law. These political rights led to more socially recognizable rights (finally a woman could be served at a fine restaurant without a man accompanying her *eye roll*) thus giving her more equality and freedom within her marriage.
So, why did women fight for prohibition as opposed to concentrating all their efforts towards civil rights? If suffrage had been passed long before prohibition, maybe women would not have been in the predicaments that led to prohibition. If women’s rights had never been taken from them in the first place (as they were in the late 18th century), lives would have been saved: fewer mothers dying in home abortions resulting from rape; fewer deaths of children from starvation, factory work and abuse; and fewer deaths of the countless individuals caught in shady prohibition dealings. What would have been gained in return? Liberty, of course. Freedom to live within one's fundamental rights.
Laws should be well thought out and directed at acts of aggression to protect individual freedoms rather than restricting them.