No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism.… When standards of conduct or morals which are beyond the normal public sentiment of a great community are professed and enforced, the results are invariably evasion, subterfuge, and hypocrisy.
Thus asserted Winston Churchill in a newspaper opinion piece about Prohibition in the United States. The essay, which consists of several arguments against Prohibition and other similarly idealistic lawmaking, was published in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph on December 2, 1929. Churchill expressed his opposition to Prohibition in primarily political terms, but the law also affected him personally, or would have if he hadn’t travelled the United States with several bottles of “medicine.”
Churchill’s most practical argument against Prohibition was simply that it didn’t work: people still drank, but hid it from the authorities. In contrast, Churchill explained, his own Great Britain was actually reducing drunkenness through the taxation of liquor; while the United States government was spending money to fight bootlegging, the government of Britain was making money in tax revenue.
Churchill made two more broad and interesting arguments against Prohibition, though. The first was that Prohibition was an instance of the tyranny of the majority, misuse of democracy by a majority to legislate against a minority. Churchill argued that a government, particularly one that emphasized liberty in its founding documents, ought never to cross certain lines in the regulation of the lives of individuals. He found Prohibition even more distasteful than other moralistic legislation, however, because it was maintained by an unusual sort of majority, a hypocritical majority that voted “dry” but drank in private anyway. “To indulge oneself while compelling others to abstain is contemptible,” wrote Churchill, and his writing dripped with his contempt.
It is because of Churchill’s statement about “intolerant idealism,” one of my favorite sentences ever written, that I like this essay. He follows it with an even broader argument, however, by arguing against not only the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which wrote Prohibition into law, but the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave nonwhite American males the right to vote. This law, Churchill argued, led to a great deal of violence in the South and, though Southern black males legally had the right to vote, “for two generations it has been well understood that they are not to use [it] in any State or District where they would make any difference.”
It is here that Churchill’s “realistic” arguments regarding idealism become uncompelling to me, largely because they lack the optimism that Southern blacks might eventually vote safely. Had Congress never passed the Fifteenth Amendment the right to vote would still be limited to whites. Instead it was passed by optimists and idealists and, after much extralegal struggle, nonwhite Americans finally gained the actual right to vote.
Churchill argues against intolerant idealism with devastating success, but against other forms of idealism only feebly. His essay exhibits the hybridization of libertarianism and anti-idealistic “realism” that defines modern conservatism.
- Winston Churchill, editor, Winston S. Churchill, The Great Republic: A History of America, pp. 270–273.