We all have our issues with "other people." Each of us has a list of things we find objectionable or morally questionable or downright reprehensible that we wish other people just would not do. I, for example, find veganism to be an insult to the farmers and ranchers of the Heartland. I think smoking cigarettes is a narcissistic habit with no upside for society. And I’m pretty sure the music of U2 is playing on loop in some circle of Hades.
That’s my list, and I’m sure you have your own; just a ledger of things enjoyed by many other people that happen to drive you nuts. But even if I were somehow able to declare tofu, Newports and Bono to be illegal, it wouldn’t stop people from wanting to hear "Joshua Tree." I could shame the supply, in other words, but nobody can legislate demand.
But that sure doesn’t stop them from trying.
People have sought to control the behavior of others since the dawn of time, I would suppose; from the first time one caveman deemed another caveman’s wheel "too round," or something. And even today, here in the world’s freest country, everybody’s always trying to bend government regulation in such a way that it stops other people from doing things. Republicans want to limit whom their neighbor can marry, while Democrats want to limit, well, everything else about their neighbor’s life except whom they can marry.
But the thing about making it illegal for someone to do something is it’s only a superficial victory: you mandated his behavior, but you didn’t change his desire. And thereby, you’ve made him choose between denying himself or breaking the law, often with terrible externalities.
By way of example: There has always been and will always be a market for sex — they don’t call prostitution the world’s oldest profession for nothing. As a basic, biological human need with a limited supply, it has an intrinsic value, and whether we like it or not, there are buyers and sellers in the market at all times. Making prostitution illegal didn’t eliminate the market, it just pushed it to a dark, dangerous place for vendors and purchasers. That’s not a societal outcome that anyone should cheer, no matter how conservative their views on the act itself.
Simply put, you can make a market black, but you can’t make it go away. It’s a principle that repeats itself any time the government takes away peoples’ choices: prohibition empowered the mob, and the "War on Drugs," has empowered blood-thirsty cartels. Neither effort to change people’s behavior solved the problem, because the demand for booze and drugs exists independent of government edict.
The argument of opposition usually goes something like, "Making (fill in the blank) legal would be the same thing as encouraging it." I say phooey.
Take divorce, for instance. Few people this side of Anthony Weiner would argue divorce is a good thing, as its personal and societal costs are unfathomable. But despite being legal, divorce isn’t encouraged; it’s an act usually viewed with shame and embarrassment. That’s because society, not government, controls the gas and brake pedal of encouragement.
The bottom line is both Republicans and Democrats need to stop using government to punish their opponents through regulation, and instead use their time in power to free their respective constituencies to live as they choose. When we’re overly focused on the lives of our neighbors, it leads to all sorts of negative emotions in our own lives. And when we push the government to make our way the only way, it inevitably leads to blowback.
Because if I outlaw U2, that gives the next guy precedence to outlaw Waylon Jennings. And nobody wants another Civil War.
Nate Strauch is a reporter and columnist for the Sherman-Denison (Texas) Herald Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.