The “Respectable” People Continue to Make War on the Rest of Us
July 11, 2008
Scarcely any critical commentator on the “war on drugs” has failed to remark on the striking inconsistencies that permeate the current prohibitionist stance. Contemporary crusaders for social purity ardently seek to outlaw X (e.g., marijuana), yet they cheerfully abide Y (e.g., Chardonnay), whose consumption is at least as harmful and in some cases is manifestly more so. How are we to make sense of such blatant contradictions?
We can see a pattern in the apparent incoherence of the prohibitionists’ position if we recall that the war on drugs, like all the preceding prohibitionist crusades in American history (some of them still continuing), amounts to a defense of bourgeois WASP conventions against persons and classes deemed less respectable. So, SSRIs, yes, ecstasy, no; Benzodiazepines, yes, heroin, no; a pleasant cocktail party, yes, reefer madness, no; and so forth. Everything turns on the sort of people who tend to consume the substance.
The better sorts have been waging war for centuries to keep the rabble in line. The self-annointed “respectable” people live in constant anxiety that their beloved way of life faces mortal menace from the disorderly masses, who may be disinclined to toe the line drawn for them. As David Wagner has written in The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice, “the Victorian and Progressive Period movements [to ban alcoholic beverages and tobacco cigarettes, among other things] were characterized by what scholarly observers consider an exaggerated . . . notion of their ability to change behavior, by a huge faith in government’s ability to regulate every aspect of private life, and by a strong ethnocentric belief in the correctness of white, Protestant, middle-class social norms.” The Progressive Era ended, thank heaven, but this twisted puritanical obsession endured.
Combine this priggish insecurity and moral pomposity with the ideological appeal of the modern therapeutic state and the irresistible attractions of money and power to be seized when governments at every level throw their vicious violence onto the scales, and you have an insoluble social problem—insoluble because the drugs are only a symptom of the underlying class warfare in which those with the bigger political battalions are constantly tempted to wage preemptive strikes against their “unruly” neighbors, especially if those neighbors are black, brown, red, yellow, poor, foreign-born, adherents of an “alien” religion, or in some other visible respect “strange.”
I was struck most recently by this phenomenon while reading—of all things—a catalog sent by the University of Oklahoma Press, where I came upon the announcement of a book by James E. Klein, Grappling with Demon Rum: The Cultural Struggle over Liquor in Early Oklahoma, to be published in October. (Full disclosure: I was born in Oklahoma, and although my family emigrated from that place when I was seven years old, I am charmed by the idea that books are published there.) Oklahoma banned liquor when it became a state in 1907, and it remained dry until 1959, long after national prohibition had been terminated in 1933.
According to the summary of Klein’s book, prohibition’s original proponents in the Sooner State “were largely middle-class citizens who disdained public drinking establishments and who sought respectability for a young state still considered a frontier society.” They purportedly aimed “to raise moral standards, reduce crime, and improve the quality of life,” among other things. Notwithstanding these uplifter’s best efforts, however, the lesser sorts stood steadfastly by their booze. Klein points “to the large number of working-class Oklahomans who patronized saloons, whether legal or not, and focuses on class conflict in the early efforts to control alcohol.” The book’s advertisement concludes: “In portraying this conflict between middle- and working-class definitions of social propriety, Klein provides new insight into forces at work throughout America during the Progressive Era.”
I would go a bit further, to say that Klein gives us still another detailed account of a deplorable social phenomenon that prevailed throughout America before, during, and after the Progressive Era—the war of self-righteous busybodies against the rest of us. Sad to say, it ain’t over yet.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.
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