On June 5, 1900, Carrie A. Nation walked into Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas with her hands full of rocks in obedience to a revelation from God. She announced to the sad sacks present: “Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate.” She then began smashing the bar’s stock and bottles with her rocks. She was a leader in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she and her sisters were arrested over thirty times between 1900 and 1910. They went into bars in Wichita and Kansas City, singing hymns and carrying hatchets which they used to destroy the fixtures and the alcohol they found there. They were the forerunners to the prohibition era which existed in the United States between 1920 and 1933.
When I attended BYU, the textbook we used for our mandatory health class taught us that the overall consumption of alcohol in the U.S. actually increased, rather than decreased, during the years 1920-1933, as a direct result of the dry laws. The statutes which were designed to curtail drunkenness by prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol brought about the opposite effect. There are some interesting implications.
We can probably agree that our laws should more or less be a reflection of our values, and that what a polity chooses to prohibit and what it chooses to tolerate is revealing. But we must also agree that a law can be counter-productive. Should we advocate laws against everything we find morally objectionable? It seems clear to me that we should not. Even though we may be strongly opposed to alcohol and tobacco, for example, it is clear that law is a poor tool for controlling them. The spectacular decline in smoking over the recent decades is almost completely attributable to social pressure, not stricter enforcement of no smoking laws. It seems clear, as well, that the decline in the number of abortions is not a result of any change in laws, but because of shifting attitudes among the citizenry.
A law which drives a practice underground, as prohibition did to drinking, can also be harmful because it masks the problem, while still allowing it to thrive. In the mid-nineties, a video rental store in Orem wanted to rent adult movies, but was denied a license on the basis of local pornography laws. The attorney for the store got his hands on the pay-per-view statistics from the cable TV company and local hotels and found that plenty of people in Utah valley were watching dirty movies, including at the Provo Marriott, which shows more blue movies than the national average for the chain. He was able to successfully demonstrate that the video store was not in violation of existing community standards.
Our religion often requires us to take a stand. When we do, it is wise to remember the Law of Unintended Consequences. In our righteous zeal, we might do more harm than good.
Bonus question: Does anybody know to what extent members of the Relief Society a hundred years ago felt a kinship with the goals and methods of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union?