What You Should Think About Prohibition

“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse — the existence of a hunted man.”

–Al Capone

When a friend asked me what today was, my response of “Cinquo de Decembero” was not only grammatically incorrect, but it also missed the point. Among other things, December 5th is Repeal Day. No longer a day of widespread national celebration, it nonetheless seems like a good cause for it. The prohibition of beverage alcohol, a.k.a. Prohibition, was one of the biggest policy disasters in the history of American democracy.

Unlike slavery, disenfranchisement of women, capital punishment, etc., this was a distinctively American creation. Guided by overwrought thinking on morality, the citizens of the United States collectively and deliberately volunteered to live in a dry nation. This position is not without merit. Though the cultural movement’s backbone was a camp revival movement analogous to modern megachurches, the rational secular case was not weak either.

The neurochemistry of alcoholism remained mysterious, but the hopeless drunk was an archetype with a venerable history. Even many people who were not chemically addicted to alcohol still had complex feelings as unfortunate experiences cast shadows on memories of happy celebrations. Used responsibly, it is a delightful substance. Used to great excess, it is a poison that sickens. The argument that it posed a problem in need of a solution was not ridiculous. Unfortunately, neither science nor policy were evolved enough to offer constructive responses.

The American people faced a choice between banning this intoxicating vice outright or taking no substantial action. Even in the relatively short life of our culture, alcohol enjoyed an entrenched position. When a debt-ridden federal government sought to expand by taxing liquor production, unrest mounted until a minor armed rebellion occurred. In regions where there was little population density or infrastructure, a working still might be a standard fixture at every farm, and whiskey might serve as a medium of exchange. Economic stresses on frontier agrarians may have motivated the rebels, but a substance already integrated into many European traditions had a place of prominence in early American history.

Some popular drinking establishments in colonial cities served as informal meeting places for the Founding Fathers and other revolutionaries. Many early American warships kept alive the English custom of rationing a full gallon of beer per day per sailor. Several unorthodox Christian sects banned the consumption of alcohol. Yet the first purported miracle of Jesus involved transforming water into wine. Generally speaking, the majority of the faithful, and Americans in general, found this form of drink acceptable.

Thus the association between charismatic evangelists and Prohibition seems counterintuitive at first glance. There were other social forces driving the political change, but American attitudes were shaped significantly by the hyperbolic demonization of alcohol in popular sermons. It was a vicious cycle. Hostility toward alcohol would increase support for a particular ministry while increasingly influential religious leaders would strive to outdo one another in expressing that hostility.

To hear them tell it, all other evils sprang from an excess of drink. Having little experience with, or even precedent for, controlled substance enforcement, there was little forethought about the practical limitations of such a policy. As the public swallowed the hysteria of the temperance movement, lawbreaking would be required to swallow any significant concentration of ethanol. Practically no one so inclined would give up the activity on account of the law.

Yet an already problematic situation was made worse by the change. Widespread demand for an illegal good created an enormous revenue stream for criminal organizations. Legitimate industry, shipping, and retail was replaced by covert production, smuggling, and illicit commerce. There was tremendous economic upheaval as some communities lost major businesses while others gained well-funded criminal networks. The infrastructure of the black market quickly expanded to accommodate a legally dry yet relentlessly thirsty United States.

Yet the social harm went well beyond mobsters and bootleggers. Millions of Americans would come to associate pleasure or relief with breaking the law. Crackdowns by zealous enforcers would intensify urban violence. The need for secrecy prevented useful regulation of alcohol production and distribution. Responsible use more frequently gave way to severe drunkenness, lasting addiction, or even blindness from poison as concentrated beverages of unreliable composition replaced properly labeled and comparatively safe products.

So on this day in 1933, nearly thirteen years after the ban took effect, it once again was legal to sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. While this horrible law was enforced, what was accomplished? Prison populations expanded. Debilitating medical conditions became more numerous. Respect for law and order was diminished. Social connections between career criminals and basically honest citizens were much more widespread. In short, Prohibition was a monumental failure.

So there is cause for celebration in Repeal Day. On the surface, it is an excuse to drink. On a deeper level, it is cause to honor the capacity of democratic governance to correct its own mistakes. It may be that campaigns of rabble-rousing can stir political passions to the point that self-inflicted disaster follows. The intensity of these passions may ruin countless lives and even leave scars on our Constitution. Yet they can be reversed. All that is required is the clarity to see through the hyperbole of blustering moralists plus the will to vote for leaders able to express that clarity in both word and deed.

This sense of hope is all the more important as we live in times when it seems like the hyperbole of blustering moralists is an insurmountable force in American politics. As the titans of talk radio and the panorama of partisan media outlets express messages more and more divergent from evident facts, it can be heartening to know that there is some basis in American tradition for siding with the facts. As a nation, we are not impervious to harm. Yet we are also not incapable of healing.

Beyond the general goodwill Repeal Day should inspire, there is also a specific message. Vice prohibitions from coast to coast invariably do as “the” Prohibition did — address a problem merely by driving it underground and increasing related harms. Several substances banned by law today are much less addictive and toxic than alcohol. Yet even the most pernicious vices are still not consistently reduced by legal prohibition. In the realm of vice, translating the morality of temperance into an outright ban is never a constructive act.

It is fair to argue that many vice behaviors are problematic. By its nature, gambling will always wreak a measure of economic havoc. Prostitution poses serious problems in the realm of public health. Like caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; many banned or restricted substances raise health issues to varying degrees. Yet crackdowns, from the American War on Drugs to the routine execution of minor opium traffickers by the Chinese government, generate misery without accomplishing the social good misinforming moralists cite as their purpose.

Today the influence of charismatic preachers and passionate suffragettes is replaced by that of popular pundits and pandering politicians. Getting “tough on crime” is an effective way to get applause at a rally, though vice crackdowns typically serve increase the wealth and influence of criminal organizations. Our record-setting prison population, along with epidemics of medical emergencies and the direct cost of enforcement activities, amounts to so much waste as to generate significant economic drag.

Repeal Day gives us cause to think happy thoughts about a a political accomplishment that took effect in 1933. Yet it also gives us cause to ask why it has not become the first of many. Similar political follies continue to make criminals of millions of Americans while doing much more to obstruct than support useful activities like regulation of vice commerce, treatment of vice abusers, and assorted other harm reduction strategies. We can do better. We know we can do better. So when next you take a little tipple, have a toast to Repeal Day, then resolve yourself that we should do better.

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3 Responses to What You Should Think About Prohibition

  1. horatiox says:

    You don’t know shit about Prohibition–just like you don’t know shit about politics or philosophy or muzak—, nor could you in any conceivable way prove that more good resulted from the Repeal (and legalizing alcohol) than from the prohibition itself.

    As far as tipples, when a drunken driver –who bought his half-gallon of whiskey legally— smashes into some loved ones maybe you’d change your mind, but I sort of doubt it.

  2. Demonweed says:

    This oddball is not a straw man of my own creation. As far as I can tell, he cannot express himself without getting something profoundly wrong. Today is no exception. Prohibition did not lead to a sustained reduction in actual drinking. That is well-documented and no secret even amongst poorly educated people. Yet apparently this buffoon is never willing to let the facts get in the way of his opinions. I still do not believe he has the mental faculties to participate in any constructive exchange of ideas. However, he is obsessed with me, contributing several comments (mostly terse attempts at heckling) in any given week.

    From time to time I may admit particularly absurd comments into the blog either for their entertainment value or to illustrate that there really are human beings on this Earth passionately and diametrically opposed to belief in that which is factual. I’m not sure if he is just ignorant about the inability of Prohibition to curb drinking or if his dark heart takes satisfaction from the thought of others being punished. However, I do know he is an extreme example of the sort of American responsible for supporting political disasters like Prohibition, hypermilitant foreign policy, etc. People hoping for wise national leadership and sensible public policy should understand, this is a living breathing specimen of the voters pulling hard in the other direction.

  3. I am consistently amazed by the decisions that are made by our government. Legislating morality through denial of physical objects, punishing behaviors that cause no provable harm, and profiting on the vices of its citizens are all signs of a sick culture. I am gratified that there are times where this kind of idiocy is occasionally repealed. I just wish that this line of thought was explored more often. December 5th should be widely celebrated, in the same manor as Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in England.
    -pf

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