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MORAL ENTREPRENEUR THEORY

The moral entrepreneur theory attributes the precipitation of law and other key events to the “presence of an enterprising individual or group. Their activities can properly be called moral enterprise, for what they are enterprising about is the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society, its code of right and wrong” (Becker, 1963:146).

Howard S. Becker’s (1963) study of the development of criminal law to control marijuana use splendidly illustrates the role of moral entrepreneurs in lawmaking. Becker noted that the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 had its forerunners in earlier criminal statutes such as the Volstead Act (alcohol) and the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (opium and derivatives). The Narcotics Bureau of the Treasury Department (now the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of the U.S. Department of Justice) was unconcerned with marijuana in its earlier years. It argued, instead, that the regulation of opiates was the real problem. However, shortly before 1937, the Narcotics Bureau redefined marijuana use as a serious problem.

This agency thus acted in the role of moral entrepreneur, in that it attempted to create a new definition of marijuana use as a social danger. For example, the bureau provided information to the mass media on the dangers of marijuana, including “atrocity stories” that detailed gruesome features of marijuana smoking. Finally, in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, ostensibly as a taxation measure but with the real purpose of preventing persons from smoking marijuana. But it had another little-known component to it. The campaign against marijuana was also colored by the fact that Harry Anslinger, the first drug czar, was appointed by Andrew Mellon, his wife’s uncle. Mellon, the Treasury secretary, was banker to DuPont, and the sales of hemp threatened that firm’s efforts to build a market for synthetic fibers. Spreading scare stories about marijuana was a way to give hemp a bad name.

Birth control provides another example of the role of moral entrepreneurs in lawmaking. In a fascinating book, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone (2001) points out that it was not until the mid-1800s that contraceptive technology jumped beyond methods in use for centuries, such as making condoms out of animal intestines. After Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber in 1839, rubber manufacturers began supplying not just condoms but douching syringes and “womb veils” (or diaphragms and cervical caps) and what amounted to IUDs (intrauterine devices). By the 1870s, pharmacies were advertising and selling chemical suppositories, vaginal sponges, and medicated tampons. The easy availability of birth control devices alarmed Anthony Comstock, a onetime salesman in New York City who believed that they assisted the vice trade by divorcing sex from marriage and childbearing. In 1873, joined by like-minded allies, he successfully lobbied for Congressional passage of a bill that branded contraception obscene and prohibited its distribution across state lines or through the mails. Subsequently, versions of the Comstock law were enacted in 24 states.

In addition to seeking real gains through lawmaking, moral entrepreneurs also seek symbolic victories. This symbolic victory has two dimensions. First, the passing of a law may also symbolize the supremacy of the groups that support it. Second, the creation of a law signifies that the illegal behavior of the group(s) allegedly engaging in it is disreputable. Where groups differ significantly in prestige and status, or where two groups are competing for status, each sees the law as a stamp of legitimacy. They will seek to use it to affirm the respectability of their own way of life. According to Gusfield (1967:178),

The fact of affirmation through acts of law and government, expresses the public worth of one set of norms, or one subculture vis-a-vis those of others. It demonstrates which cultures have legitimacy and public domination, and which do not. Accordingly, it enhances the social status of groups carrying the affirmed culture and degrades groups carrying that which is condemned as deviant.

 
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