Churchill on Prohibition

As I mentioned in a prior post, Winston Churchill made many interesting observations about our Constitution. One came in a 1929 op-ed (written for a British newspaper) in which he sharply criticized the Eighteenth Amendment and the “rat-trap rigidity of the American Constitution.” (Churchill was known to imbibe, so his opposition on the merits was not surprising).

“No folly,” Churchill wrote, “is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism. . . . When standards of conduct or morals which are beyond the normal public sentiment of a great community are professed and enforced, the results are invariably evasion, subterfuge, and hypocrisy. In the end a lower standard is reached in practice than would have followed from a commonsense procedure.” Prohibition, in his view, “is the most amazing exhibition alike of the arrogance and of the impotence of a majority that the history of representative institutions can show.”

Churchill then compared Prohibition with the Fifteenth Amendment.  “The Southern negroes have the equal political rights it was the boast of the Constitution to accord them; but for two generations it has been well understood that they are not to use them in any State or District where they would make any difference. As with the Fifteenth, so will it be with the Eighteenth Amendment.” More controversial was Churchill’s assertion that the problem in both cases rested on the disproportionate burden than these rules imposed. With respect to the Fifteenth Amendment, “[t]he North were no more inconvenienced by the voting of a few handfuls of negroes scattered among their large population, and being outvoted on all occasions, than is a teetotaler by Prohibition.” “A law which does not carry with it the assent of public opinion or command the convictions of the leading elements in a community may endure, but cannot succeed; and under modern conditions in a democratic country it must, in the process of failure, breed many curious and dangerous evils. Whether or not you agree with Churchill’s analysis of the Fifteenth Amendment, there is an important insight here about the degree to which unequal burdens in fact pose a significant problem for democratic legitimacy.

Lastly, Churchill emphasized that Prohibition was partly a product of “hysteria in wartime on the home front,” by which he meant anti-German feeling.  (Canada also enacted Prohibition during World War I via legislation, but that was repealed afterwards after the “same unbalanced wartime emotion” passed.) I’ll revisit that point in a subsequent post.


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