After the tragic Charleston shooting last week, South Carolina’s governor demanded a ban on the Confederate flag shifting the national conversation from a very real confrontation of racism to a circus act focused on a relic of it—rather than the root cause. In the aftermath of the media frenzy, companies pulled the flag from their shelves and prohibitionists set their sights on a memorial to slave-owner Thomas Jefferson in Washington D.C.
While the intentions of outright banning symbols, statues, or behavior are usually always good—desires to end racism, hate, or destructive behavior, for example—the mechanics of such policies are time and again proven ineffective, if not disastrous.
Take the Drug War.
Riddled with institutionalized racism, the government’s moral crusade to end the proliferation of drugs and addiction is by all measures an utter failure. Forty-five years after the Controlled Substance Act passed, heroin use has skyrocketed, the war on marijuana is incontrovertibly futile, and the violence police inflict on non-violent individuals while enforcing drug prohibition is commonplace. Another result of the government’s decades-long push to eradicate drugs? The world’s largest prison population, which often enjoys a steady flow of drugs behind bars while addicts are deprived of the treatment they need.
Only fifty years before the Drug War was instated, the United States government attempted to ban alcohol with the 18th amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was largely inspired by a temperance movement in the United States. While those who favored prohibition wanted to help improve society and solve alcoholism, their willingness to use the government to do so proved disastrous. Not only did “bootlegging” explode—so did organized crime. Those convicted of alcohol offenses during Prohibition overflowed jails and court systems, much like victims of the Drug War today. In 1933, government overcame its hubris and repealed the 18th amendment by passing the 21st. Today, alcohol still boasts a reputation as one of the most lethal drugs on Earth, alcoholism is still a societal ill, and the government still forces the same disastrous approach to addiction with its War on Drugs.
Organized crime, catalyzed by prohibition, inspired yet another ineffective state attempt to control behavior: the National Firearms Act of 1934. It instituted a $200 excise tax on the sale and transfer of certain weapons in a direct attempt to discourage possession of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, silencers, and other “gangster weapons” (as if black market mobsters were eager to obey government decrees). The bill was passed after the gruesome St. Valentine’s Day mob massacre. Though prohibition was repealed before this law was passed, it was a direct response to the violence created because of prohibition.
The next sweeping legislation came in 1968 with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. As detailed in Adam Winkler’s book, Gun Fight, the bill was dubbed an opportunity to reduce violence on the streets after a federal report blamed widespread, contentious race riots, at least in part, on easy access to guns (it was also fast-tracked because of the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.). Though crime, in general, was up during those times, the most telling element of the legislation was that it banned “Saturday night specials,” cheap and easily obtainable guns that rioters brought into the streets. Never mind that the explosive situation was directly caused by institutionalized racism—the perpetrator of that racism solved the surface problem of “crime” and patted itself on the back (it also provided grants for law enforcement and FBI-conducted riot training for police). Two years later, the federal government waged the Drug War and the mass round-up of minorities was in full swing. Regardless of individual bills, bans on guns have failed to reduce violence, as evidenced by Chicago’s gun policies and analysis of nations that impose strict gun control.
Even the government’s attempts to ban racism have—at least in part—failed. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to ameliorate many deeply-rooted racial problems in America—and in many ways did—the hateful ideology remains a major fabric of American society. In spite of the federal government’s triumphant attempts to help minorities, the condition of people of color in society is one of grotesque disadvantage socially, economically, and politically.
Bans are almost always touted as solutions to societal problems, yet they almost always ignore the underlying issues that manifested the comparatively superficial problems in the first place. Racism caused a horrendous shooting while the subsequent flag ban overstated an inanimate object’s contribution to such hatred. The Drug War sought to eradicate drugs but ignored the underlying reasons why they proliferated, proving to be an embarrassing misadventure in regulating human behavior. Prohibition similarly attempted to outlaw addiction, not only failing, but inspiring crime and violence.
Even seemingly legitimate bans—such as GMOs—ultimately do not live up to their stated goals. While countries may ban Monsanto, they do not always ban toxic pesticides, which are proven—more extensively than GMOs—to cause health problems. The federal government sets limits for “allowable” toxins in drinking water—like mercury and lead—yet these substances are still found in the water supply at rates higher than what is deemed safe. Bans on abortion fail to stop the practice while bans on sex education in favor of abstinence-only programs produce higher rates of teen pregnancy.
Most currently, on Friday the Supreme Court overturned bans on gay marriage nationwide, citing personal autonomy, civil rights, and equality. It finally acknowledged the cruelty and oppression of imposing laws that prevent two individuals from sharing something so intimate as a life partnership, repealing bans around the country.
While humanity faces innumerable ills, banning undesirable behavior, ideology, and items that represent both is an attempt to forcibly control human behavior—a monumental undertaking that rarely works. Many times bans exacerbate problems by driving them underground and out of sight, as is the case with both the War on Drugs and racism.
We can no longer rely on corrupt, inefficient, bureaucratic governments to solve society’s ills, especially considering that they play a major role in perpetuating these problems so often. Laws don’t change cultures—cultures change laws. After all, the Civil Rights Act was only passed after decades of protest and nonviolent resistance. When we, as a society, decide to end racism, it will end. When we decide to end the Drug War, it will be phased out. When we decide to stop consenting to oligarchy—and enough people join us—the oligarchy will fall.
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