The Ken Burns 3-part documentary Prohibition debuted on PBS this week. As of this writing, the first two parts have aired. They have led me to believe that bribery can be justified.
Part I deals with temperance movements leading up to ratification of the 18th Amendment, and mentions how brewers bought legislators to forestall state-level prohibition. Part II describes how bootleggers bought cops, city officials, and legislators so they'd look the other way.
I believe these bribes were justified. Even though Prohibition had the stamp of the Constitution on it, it was a fundamentally unjust law.
Think of it this way. Say that there is a movement to pass a Constitutional Amendment requiring the killing of all second-born sons. For whatever reason, the idea picks up steam. If persuasion by itself won't halt the Amendment's momentum, would not bribery be justified to stall its movement?
And if the Amendment passes, would not the bribing of cops and other government officials be a legitimate act of self-defense by second-born sons and their loved ones?
Of course, one could say that this is like comparing apples and oranges. That is correct, but only in the sense that the right to life is the apple and the right to liberty is the orange. Prohibition struck at two fundamental liberties:
- Private property, from which one should be free to manufacture anything he wants, including alcoholic beverages;
- Freedom of exchange, the right of two parties to consensually buy and sell with each other
Even if we grant that there are circumstances where government can legitimately infringe on these liberties to protect individuals from harm, that was not the intent of leading Prohibitionists. Instead, they sought to trample on everyone's freedom for the sake of an abstract, utopian fantasy of a better America. The supposed approval of the majority of "the people," and the passage of a Constitutional Amendment, doesn't make a law just. Indeed, the more a law intrudes on voluntary behavior, the more it is unjust.
But doesn't bribery undermine the value of representative government?
Not necessarily. If a bill before a legislature is unjust, and bribing the legislators is the only means to stop it, then bribery can actually PROTECT the people. And, once an unjust law has already passed, that is its own evidence that representative government has failed. At that point, your own rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness ethically trump the "law." You comply with it or evade it at your own risk. At that point, paying off cops and other officials to avoid prosecution is legitimate, since the law itself is illegitimate.
This is not to say that bribery is always right. Bribing legislators in order to get special treatment is wrong. And if you're guilty of a real crime such as murder, bribing a cop is most likely to be futile anyway.
But laws that essentially do nothing but reduce the peaceful, voluntary choices of individuals aren't laws at all. Bribery is an ugly way to stop them or go around them, but I don't condemn those who resort to it.