We sold a hand fan out of the Blue Monster (our display case for military and historical insignifica) yesterday. It was a souvenir of the 1893 Harrisburg convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union was the group embarked on a mighty campaign against the evils of drinking alcohol. That campaign ended with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution ushering in the grand social experiment commonly known as Prohibition. The aim of the experiment was a change in culture and behavior for the better. (The organization still exists, by the way.)
It did indeed change the culture and behavior of the population, but not necessarily for the better. New industries were spawned, not all of them strictly legal. It was one of the elements that gave rise to organized crime (Al Capone, et al, in Chicago and elsewhere). Liquor continued to be served in the White House (Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt in particular each had his own reserve; FDR in fact had a daily ritual drink late each afternoon, personally serving all who happened to be present). And on the neighborhood level, "speakeasies" (clandestine pubs) were born. (There was actually one of those in our building here in downtown York.)
I got to thinking about this last night when I saw that another well-intentioned group has embarked on yet another campaign to bring about a change in culture and behavior. The National Safety Board has formally announced an initiative to ban the use of cell phones while driving. These are the same good folks to got the ball rolling to change the laws and require that we all buckle up while driving.
Like the Women's Christian Temperance Union before them, the members of National Safety Council are well within their rights to try to get this done.
And I am well within my rights to resist.
Let's take seat belts as an example. Now, I am in the habit of buckling up. It only makes good sense for me to do so. But I strongly resent the fact that I am required by law to do so.
I worked hard to earn the money to buy my car. But I did, and I paid for it. Paid the taxes, too. And I've paid my fees to have it registered. I've paid my fees to get a license to drive. I pay for insurance on the car. I pay to have the thing inspected. And I pay the government even more taxes every time I buy gas. And I pay to park on a public road (that my taxes allegedly help to pave and maintain). I don't complain about it. I don't try to duck it. I pay. And I continue to pay.
So, where the heck does the government get off telling me that I must buckle my seat belt? It is my car. It is my front seat. The government didn't buy it for me, or help me to pay for any of the continuing costs. So what I do, or don't do, in the front seat should be my business. I have paid, dearly, for this front seat. It is mine. And I would very much like to invite the government to get out of my front seat. Actually, I'd like them to get the hell out of my front seat.
This is not a purely academic debate.
We are in an era of creeping "nanny government." There seems to be a belief among many that the government knows what is better for us than we do ourselves. We have seen in recent years legislative restrictions placed on all sorts of personal behavior: seat belt use, smoking/not smoking, gambling/not gambling. Next up will be cell phone use/non-cell phone use.
Where does this attempt at controlling behavior end? Where is the line?
I am not some ideological nut-case. I am really wondering...
Will the government decide what we can and cannot watch on TV? (Before answering, be aware that The Playboy Channel is prohibited by government regulation from a large number of cable systems around the country.) Will the government decide what we can and cannot read?
Instead of a "speakeasy", will this building one day house a clandestine "readeasy"?
These notions are not absurd. They are a logical progression of where we are heading. To quote myself: where is the line?
The answer is: there is no line. If you accept the concept that the government (federal, state or local) knows best about seat belts or gambling or cell phones, then you must accept the concept that they know best about what you should be doing...or thinking.
Maybe it is time to ban Huckleberry Finn again?
Somewhere, I suspect, the good and gentle founders of the Women's Christian Temperance Union are smiling.