This country, like all other countries, has at times lost its mind. But this country, again like all others, since it is constituted differently than the others, goes insane in unique ways. Our most spectacular breakdown occurred early in 1919, when we ratified the 18th amendment to our Constitution. The meat of that change read:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Around this same time, many other countries experimented with similar measures, but none were as drastic as the method our citizens hit upon. And no countries that were not made of Muslim majorities had any more success with the prohibition of alcohol than did the United States.
Perhaps you recall the major selling point of the progressive-led call for prohibition was health: how it would certainly improve, how in particular women and children would benefit. Drinking, the cause then as now of much disease, would necessarily decrease, even cease, and people would enter a Brave New World sound in mind and body.
Prohibition was this country’s greatest contribution to the ever-broadening fund of examples of the Doctrine of Unintended Consequences. For not only did drinking not cease, nor even slow, it picked up pace; entirely new classes of people, namely women and children, eagerly bent their wrists and swelled their livers; and everybody came to thumb their noses at what they came to see as excessive government interference in their lives.1
Did you also know that in 1895 the Supreme Court declared the income tax to be unconstitutional? And it was: unconstitutional, that is; because no provisions for it could be discovered in the text of the Constitution. The method of expedient, plastic interpretations had not yet been invented: the “living” Constitution was still many decades in the future. And so, after much experimentation in getting around the income-tax ban, progressives in 1913 were responsible for the ratification of the 16th amendment, which stated:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
Much desired was a government-enforced mechanism to “level the playing field.” The rich, citizens were assured, had more money than the poor, a situation not to be desired. The money should be taken from the rich and given to the government, which would dispense a portion, but only a portion, of it to the poor.
Alas, even this most noble effort was struck with terrible ferocity by the Doctrine. For government swelled and was made fat and greedy by the proceeds. The income tax laws became a morass; rates of nearly 100% were one time in force, and now half of all citizens do not pay; cheating is rampant. It is true that some of the richest are made humble in the face of the tax, but others are elevated, and it is now the role of the government to say who these people will be.
In other words, the opposite of the law’s intention is being realized. Power is flowing into fewer and fewer hands, the government becomes more dominant and private citizens more servile. Income disparity grows.
And now we have Obamacare and its individual mandate, given to us in the name of the poor and downtrodden (and the children, of course), in the promise that all will be made healthy. The mandate gives the government the power to force citizens to engage in contracts with other citizens, regardless whether either party wants the relationship. The government will write the contracts.
Although all know, and all acknowledge the force, of the Doctrine, at least in the abstract, most feel that their ideas to usher in Utopia, or something approximate to it, are not subject to its sway. Somehow, this time will be different. What counts is whether one’s heart is in the right place. We’ll leave the details to sort out later.
Yet we already see shades of the Doctrine in Obamacare. All experience thus far shows that people on average do not become healthier when government controls health care. Why will it be different this time? And if the government is allowed to coerce behaviors it desires in the name of Health, what stops the government from increasing it reach?
The Supreme Court may be our last hope to check the forces of the Doctrine. Oral arguments begin today.
1I recommended highly Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.