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Bully for prohibitionists

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Imagine that I wanted you to quit gambling, or to stop smoking something, or to save more for your retirement. I have my reasons, okay? The world would be a much better place if it did things my way.

I confront you on the street while you’re smoking. I threaten you with a club until you put out your cigarette and give me the rest of them, which I crumble into a trashcan. As I leave, you call the police on your cell phone to report me for armed robbery.

The next day, a few of my well intentioned homeys and I confront you again about your bad habit. After we take your new pack “for your own good,“ you report our felonious gang activity.

Over the next several days, my gang gets bigger and bigger until it acts like a mob. You call the police, but get no action because most of them are sympathetic to my group.

During the next week, my mob grows as big as a political majority, and when you call the police department, I answer the telephone. I tell you that smoking anything is now prohibited, and that you’ll go to jail unless you quit.

You can barely hear yourself over the chants of the self-righteous majority in the background. You ask, but how can this be? Last week the police protected my rights to smoke and be free from violent moralists. Today you’re policing me on their behalf. Isn’t it a crime to threaten violence to change my nonviolent behavior or to forcefully take my property? How did you convert my smoking to a crime and elevate your crimes to my solution?

Because I can, I answer. I’m the political majority. I have enough voters, enforcers, experts, and judges to say that wrong is right. My use of violence to fight your smoking is moral because enough people say it is. If only enough sinners threw stones, stone throwing would also be right.


On a recent television show, Dr. Phil explained group dynamics to a twelve-year-old girl who was being harassed by some neighborhood girls. He said that bullies are cowards who get their strength only in numbers. He said that some people get the courage to do things in groups that they would never do alone.

Likewise, in the privacy of voting booths, some people ask government to do things that they would never – on moral or criminal grounds – do themselves. As well, most politicians call for government to do things that it has no authority to do. For example, if we as individuals have no right to use force to make others quit smoking, then we cannot delegate this lack of authority to our agents in government. The sum total of zero authority is zero.

If government derives its just powers from the governed, then there is no place in a just society for the prohibition of individual vice, except in public areas that our governments constitutionally may regulate. (There is some dispute whether a city such as Bloomington, Indiana may regulate smoking in commercial areas.)

Outside these prescribed areas, there is no moral, practical or constitutional authority for citizens to use government force against others’ honest nonviolent behavior, such as smoking. Bullying is not the solution to vice. We cannot coerce virtue into others when coercion is not virtuous. The best approach is to treat all vice as we do alcohol and tobacco cigarettes.

Unlike the Republican Party that he inspired, Abraham Lincoln understood that the prohibition of vice is rule by the brute force of bullies with no moral authority. He said: “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."

Dr. Phil said the best way to enfeeble bullies is to not stand with them.

About the Author

Kurt is a hopeful screenwriter. He is a graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, Californina and of Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis.


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