Recently, I watched the Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. It was typical for Burns’s work, quotations from ordinary people about their lives, talking heads one after another to tell us what it’s all about, and a heavy dose of earnestness. But one thing stood out for me–namely, the link between the prohibition of alcohol and the women’s suffrage movement.
Now, I’d known about that before, but in thinking about it while watching the film, I was struck by how the push for recognizing one type of right
was tied to the denial of another.
In fact, votes for women were delayed in part because women’s suffrage and temperance leagues were so closely related.
But that wasn’t the only questionable link. The Ku Klux Klan also supported votes for women, given their common interest in banning alcohol.
But why should that matter? Unsavory characters sometimes endorse good candidates and good ideas, and politics is the mother of strange bedfellows, as the saying goes. The problem, though, is the expansion of one kind of freedom at the expense of another.
Pay attention to that last sentence. By no means am I saying that women should be denied the right to vote. It is the right of all citizens to participate in the running of their country. At the same time, there is a basic dissonance in demanding your own rights be recognized while seeking to deny rights to others.
Is drinking alcohol a right? I’ve discussed the subject of rights many times before. Regular readers will have seen my discussion of gun rights in particular. But on what basis can we ground a given right?
The old answer was that God gives us our rights, though that answer no longer satisfies the modern world. A more recent model is that society grants us rights by consensus, but this is especially insufficient, since whatever society decides to give, society can also take away, as the twentieth century reminded us all too often.
My solution to this question is to say that rights are an expression of our power to choose. As an individual, I am able to make decisions for myself. I can act autonomously. As long as I am not harming innocent others, I must be free to do as I wish, and the same goes for you, Dear Reader. This is why many things ought not to be subject to a vote. We have no business directing the private choices of others, and we must employ the lightest of touches when guiding actions in public.
An example of how this is forgotten is found in Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund and frequent author on The Huffington Post. She advocates for protection and aid of children, and in that, she has a noble cause. When she ventures into pushing gun control, however, she commits the same error that the suffragists did a century ago in wanting to curtail some rights to support others.
Better it is to seek to do good unmixed than to mingle good with evil. We do not defend one right by violating another. We do not breathe life into one right by strangling a different right. And when we permit one right to be denied, we deny them all.
Enough seriousness. Lift a glass, and celebrate freedom.