When Consumers Make “Stupid” Decisions, Who Should Stop Them?

One hundred years ago this past January 17, Americans tried to elevate the moral quality of all citizens with the passage of a criminal law. They prohibited, on pain of punishment, the production and sale of alcohol. The social experiment lasted 13 years during which time much crime was committed through the illegal production and drinking of alcohol.

Alcohol was deemed to be a good without merit to the extent that individual judgment was not deemed sufficiently potent to cause consumers to give up drinking beer, wine and spirits and so force producers out of business for lack of customers. The state was given the responsibility of making such decisions for individuals.

The law was draconian and totalitarian, though passed with majority support. The ideology, more a theology, put forth to justify such an abridgement of individual freedom believed that God would bless and protect only a community of righteous people. Since the drinking of alcohol was deemed unrighteous, a nation of drinkers would not receive God’s blessings. To save American, therefore, in God’s eyes, people had to be made to be righteous.

The effort to impose morality by law is commonplace among our species. Most criminal laws are justified by a moral norm, say, thou shalt not kill. In Imperial China over the centuries, filial impiety was illegal. Under legalized Sharia rules in some countries, people are punished for, say, blasphemy. Chairman Mao made the unrighteousness of wrong thinking an offense leading to re-education under state supervision. China today uses coercion to re-educate Uighur Turks in Xinjiang province to “uplift” their beliefs and habits in line with government preferences.

But the human spirit is such that laws can’t instill morality. People are contumacious, which is to say that they, at times, choose immorality or consumption of un-meritorious goods and services over the socially proposed “right” way to live.

Today in the U.S., old laws against same-sex marriage, sodomy and use of marijuana have been repealed. The people’s will changes and so the law changes accordingly.

The new movement associated with Greta Thunberg on climate change or to impose a Green New Deal on the greedy, selfish and rich has overtones to me of using the state to impose morality. I doubt the efficacy of any such attempt.

Which leaves us with the problem of just how to minimize bad choices and encourage wisdom, prudence and mercy among our kind.