During the occasional periods when the President isn’t altering Obamacare—unconstitutionally through executive orders—progressives like to insist that the law is “settled” and “here to stay.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) also says it’s time to move on: “Get over it. It’s the law,” he advises.
But that ignores one of the best qualities of our democratic republic: Change is always possible. Keep December 5, 1933, in mind. On that date, the 21st Amendment was ratified to repeal an unpopular amendment: Prohibition. Today, replacing an unpopular law would be even easier.
The 21st Amendment was simple and clear. “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed,” it begins. It is unique in several ways: The 21st is the only amendment ratified by state conventions instead of state legislatures, and it’s the only amendment that specifically repeals another amendment.
The 21st Amendment moved through the ratification process rather quickly, as it took effect less than 10 months after it was first proposed in Congress. But that was slow compared to how quickly the 18th Amendment had been enacted.
Lawmakers in Congress never bothered to conduct any committee hearings about Prohibition and debated only six hours before sending it to the states, Julia Shaw noted this year. Then the amendment was ratified by three-quarters of the states within a month. Blinding speed for an amendment to the Constitution and a pace that left its supporters blind to the problems Prohibition would cause.
Prohibition was the very photograph of a Progressive change. But, like Obamacare, it failed right from the start. Illegal bootlegging replaced legal alcohol sales, and organized crime stepped in to replace legal distribution networks. (As more doctors pull out of government-run programs like Medicare and Medicaid, could we see health care speakeasies pop up?)
“None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass,” journalist H. L. Mencken observed in 1925. “The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”
Expensive, ineffective, unworkable. That sums up not just Prohibition but Obamacare today. Like Prohibition, it deserves to go away.