Bryan Griffin: The Government Can’t Be Our Salvation | WAMC

Bryan Griffin: The Government Can’t Be Our Salvation

Dec 16, 2020

As Biden makes moves to transition into the Oval Office, there’s a theme forming among his speeches and cabinet picks: the government will solve all of your problems.

All of his appointees believe that healthcare should be provided by the government. His articulated COVID-19 plans, including potential federal lockdowns and mask-mandates, are praised and welcomed by heavy-handed state governors. And his theme, “Build Back Better,” is a nod to his aspirations: a government-led restructuring of American society.

Take a snapshot of America at any point in its history, and a myriad of problems faced society. This even includes pandemics. In every struggle, the voting population is faced with the choice of not whether to solve each problem, but how to solve it.

Will we embrace the design of America that led to the prosperity that the world envies? An economy built by the ingenuity and dedication of its people? A moral compass that favors charity and helping others from a willing heart? An individual responsibility that persists behind closed doors? And a spirit of innovation that is fed by a desire to do right and be best?

Or will we fall into the lull of government being our salvation? Our health, our livelihood, even our morality – codified and enforced so our primary role becomes living and obeying the decisionmakers with little thought?

The modern Democratic Party acts and speaks to downplay this most fundamental of choices. Does government influence belong in every aspect of our lives? To Democrats like Joe Biden, it is a foregone conclusion.

Government has a terrible track record for fixing things.

Top-down solutions create more problems than they solve. Governments never get smaller, and they never need less money. And as size and funding increase, government seems to get worse at doing things—not better.

Migrants in America who have been fleeing California and New York for the greener fields of small government Texas and Florida can attest to this.

In a small, unassuming building in the middle of historic downtown Savannah, Georgia is the American Prohibition Museum.

Visitors who buy a ticket enter to be greeted with the prominent words of Abraham Lincoln:

“Prohibition 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.”

In the 1920s, the question of the day was whether the government should be the monitor of people’s drinking habits.

Lincoln believed that this issue was no place for government intervention. More so, he believed government involvement in places it shouldn’t be – like personal responsibility and questions of morality – attacked the very foundation of the nation.

“A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded,” he said.

Those who wanted to see the government ban alcohol led a campaign for government action that involved nearly every sector of American life.

“The Prohibition agenda was forced into the public school curriculum,” reads one placard at the Prohibition Museum.

Prohibition-friendly media printed articles that attempted to make the decision incontrovertible. In the July 1st, 1930 edition of the Sign of the Times, the Prohibitionists published an article titled “Let Science Decide Prohibition.”

Political actors fueled by righteous indignation smashed up bars and attacked patrons with hatchets.

Ultimately, the government-minded crowd won. Prohibition was made national law through the 18th Amendment. For the first time, civil liberties were restricted by the Constitution, a move completely contrary to the spirit of the document which was written to restrict government.

Perhaps the Prohibition track record can be instructive to how well the government can solve 2020s set of challenges.

For the nearly 14 years that Prohibition was in effect, drinking significantly increased in America. For the first time, many states were forced to implement an income tax to make up for the lost revenue of alcohol sales. Prohibitionists promised an economic boom from the heavy-handed government “fix,” but the result was devastation. The gutted industry put droves of people out of work. Restaurants went under without alcohol sales – people chose to stay home where they could drink privately. State budgets were gutted. Many of those hit hardest were immigrant families who prided themselves on their distillation craft. Businesses boarded up or headed for Mexico.

“At least a billion dollars a year…goes into the pockets of bootleggers and in the pockets of public officials in the shape of graft,” remarked one Congressman.

Seeing how poorly this government fix played out, many Prohibitionists turned into advocates for repeal. They had to learn the hard way, but it became abundantly clear: the government can’t fix everything.

When Congress passed the 21st Amendment in 1933, this experiment in government salvation came to an end. Signing the bill, President Roosevelt declared that it was a return to individual freedom.

That which we face today is as challenging and complex as the issues of any day –Prohibition included. We can’t gloss over the first and most fundamental question at hand, which is “where should our solutions come from?”

Expect the next four years from the Biden administration to overlook this question, at times even ridiculing those who would ask it.

But it’s a question Lincoln asked. It’s a question our founders asked. And it’s a question we should ask.

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.