March 17, 2018
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Prohibition’s Lessons


History documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (with collaborator Lynn Novick) has returned to PBS with his latest effort at unraveling and retelling a chapter of America’s past — this time, it’s the dark days of Prohibition. The series, which wraps up Tuesday night, has a perspective, as do many of his documentaries.

The titles of the three parts reveal some of that perspective: A Nation of Drunkards, A Nation of Scofflaws and A Nation of Hypocrites.

In this week’s Maine Debate, we consider what lessons Prohibition has imparted nearly a century after its adoption. Specifically, the question that rises to the fore is: What contemporary policies are mirroring the mistakes of Prohibition?

The consensus on the 18th Amendment is that it was a misguided and doomed attempt to legislate morality.

Many of us may agree that avoiding alcohol and mind-altering drugs altogether is a safer, healthier course for individuals and their partners, children, extended family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, employer and taxpayers who support public safety programs and health care facilities.

But a chief problem with legislating such a belief is that it was — and is — very difficult to enforce. And furthermore, the case can be made that responsible alcohol use affects only the drinker. So if the drinker is not abusing alcohol to the point of drunkenness, do nondrinkers have the right to impose their will on what is largely a personal conduct matter? This is what is known as tyranny of the majority.

Maine was an early adopter of measures to limit alcohol consumption. Low-alcohol content beer was allowed in the late 19th century, but stronger drink was not. BDN columnist Wayne Reilly has noted the newspaper’s indignation that bars were operating in the early 20th centuryeven though they were prohibited by state law. Some of the moral fervor that created those laws remains in our small towns.

In a story previewing the broadcast of the documentary, called the issue at hand “the freedom to get one’s buzz on.” But it’s really more than that. And that’s where lessons may be inferred.

Maine’s gambling laws were adopted contemporaneously with the state’s liquor laws in the late 19th century. After the Civil War, too many husbands and fathers would drink and gamble away their paychecks, leaving families destitute. Because the gambling laws remained in state statute, we must vote to approve casino proposals. Are such facilities qualitatively different from strip clubs, where husbands and fathers also can spend family resources?

Yet another corollary to the failed attempt at banning alcohol consumption is a drug whose use remains widespread despite it being illegal. Many people have advocated for legalizing marijuana use, arguing that its use is a moral choice and that its health effects are negligible.

And still another issue that one might argue is an attempt to legislate morality is same-sex marriage. Should the prohibition on this social partnership continue? One of the talking heads in the Burns documentary makes the point that every amendment in the U.S. Constitution extends rights to more people; the 18th Amendment was the exception.

Join us here at The Maine Debate from 10 a.m. to noon.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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