Should drinking alcohol be illegal? Even asking that question today seems absurd, but only 75 years ago it was illegal to drink alcohol in the United States.
I’m talking about Prohibition, of course, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. It was a massive social experiment that failed and is a lesson for us as we think about other victimless crimes like drugs, gambling, and prostitution.
According to Peter McWilliams in his excellent Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, there were twelve bad effects of Prohibition:
1. Prohibition created disrespect for the law.
Pullquote: Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes.
If everyone breaks the law, it is disrespected. Practically everyone broke the law of Prohibition — making everyone criminals. If the law prohibited moderate consumption of something as pleasurable and harmless as alcohol, what else did it prohibit that was good?
Prohibition encouraged people to see the law as whimsical and unimportant, instead of something good and protecting. It did nothing to encourage the respect and obedience the law deserves.
2. Prohibition eroded respect for religion.
Evangelicals were the main force behind Prohibition. They saw alcohol as the “devil’s drink,” hating it so much they explained away their holy book’s favorable references to it (and still do today).
They preached God demanded total abstinence from alcohol. Much like today with homosexuality, conservatives thought drinking was responsible for many of society’s ills. If it could be made illegal, then God would bless America.
But instead of ushering in paradise, Prohibition increased alcohol consumption and immorality, created organized crime and caused massive political corruption. As they so often are, evangelicals were wrong. They made false promises and did far more harm than good. This jaded many people towards religion.
Of course, to many of us, eroding respect for religion was one of the few positive effects of Prohibition…
3. Prohibition created organized crime.
“Prohibition made the gangster not just well paid, but well liked,” McWilliams said. It took significant organization to bootleg the quantities of alcohol people desired. The result was organized crime, which didn’t differentiate between petty crimes like transporting liquor and real crimes like violence, murder, and theft.
Similarly, organized crime continues today because of the prohibition on gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Where there is demand, there will be supply.
4. Prohibition permanently corrupted law enforcement, the court system, and politics.
Organized crime was huge, and it had a lot of money and influence. Policeman and politicians were bribed and blackmailed:
If mobsters couldn’t buy or successfully threaten someone in a powerful position, they either “wiped them out” or, following more democratic principles, ran a candidate against the incumbent in the next election. They put money behind their candidate, stuffed the ballot box, or leaked some scandal about the incumbent just before the election (or all three). The important thing was winning, and more often than not, someone beholden to organized crime rose to the position of power.
It created a new class of candidates that were open to the highest bidder. Many court cases required payoffs to get a “fair” hearing. In other words, corruption abounded and the people began distrusting the government.
5. Prohibition overburdened police, courts, and the penal system.
You can’t throw everyone in jail — yet with Prohibition, even a small percentage of offenders couldn’t be locked away without overburdening the system. In 1923, for instance, the US District Attorneys spent 44% of their time on Prohibition cases. This takes time away from the real purpose of police and courts: to protect people and their possessions, not enforce a religious sect’s morality.
6. Prohibition harmed people financially, emotionally, and morally.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs because of Prohibition. People in the alcohol business had two options: to find lower-paying work or become criminals (that is, staying in their profession). Because of the rhetoric evangelicals were spouting, it was also hard to find a decent job coming from the “devil’s work.” This encouraged people to break the law just to support their families.
Pullquote: Marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.
Because alcohol was illegal, its purity was not regulated. While fruit, vegetable, and grain alcohol is usually safe, alcohol made from wood is not — but it is difficult to tell the difference until too late. Over 10,000 people died during Prohibition from drinking wood alcohol. Others who were not killed went permanently blind or had severe organ damage.
The same happens today with illegal drugs — most overdoses are accidental, a result from not knowing the purity or strength of the drug.
And who knows how many people died because of organized crime, or due to corrupt or overburdened police. When the police spend much of their time arresting and investigating crimes that cause no harm to others, the crimes that do cause harm increase and real criminals are more likely to go free.
8. Prohibition changed the drinking habits of our country — for the worse.
Pullquote: Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.
Instead of going out to drink, people began drinking mostly at home. When they did go out to drink, it was often to get drunk — you couldn’t been seen with a bottle, so it was best to finish it. Hard liquor became popular because it was more concentrated and thus cheaper to smuggle. To make hard liquor more palatable, cocktails were created.
Ironically, Prohibition also increased the amount people drank. Drinking has never again returned to pre-Prohibition levels.
9. Prohibition made cigarette smoking a national habit.
Cigarettes were also prohibited in many states, which seemed to make them irresistible. By 1930, cigarettes were legal everywhere and consumption nearly tripled. Smoking became fashionable and a sign of rebellion. It was also far more harmful and addictive than alcohol.
10. Prohibition prevented the treatment of drinking problems.
It’s a lot harder to say you have a problem when it could land you in jail. Legally, you were either sober or a criminal — both occasional drinkers and drunks were lumped into the same category. You couldn’t go to your pastor or counselor for help — you might end up in jail.
11. Prohibition caused “immorality.”
Evangelicals were expecting a New Jerusalem of Sobriety, but what they got was an explosion of immorality. Men and women began drinking together — they were partners in crime, and they became partners in bed. Unmarried sexual activity increased and the decade became known as the “roaring 20’s.”
12. Prohibition was phenomenally expensive.
Some estimate the total cost was about a billion dollars in a time when a Ford factory worker made $5 a day. The government also lost a significant amount of tax revenue because alcohol sales went underground. This made the price of alcohol artificially inflated, and people spent a lot for a little liquor.
* * *
Prohibition was a massively failed attempt at legislating morality. The government’s role is to protect citizens and their property — not legislate what people are allowed to do for recreation, who they can love, or what kind of sex they can have.
We spend billions of dollars a year on “the war on drugs” and have only defeat to show for it. Meanwhile, the police and courts are tied up with people whose only crime was enjoying or selling a recreational drug. They were hurting no one, except possibly themselves. And what business of the government’s is that?
[digg=http://digg.com/political_opinion/12_Bad_Effects_of_Prohibition_You_Should_Know]”It is time we realized,” said Sam Harris, that “crimes without victims are like debts without creditors.” As we think about the role of government in victimless “crimes” like gambling, prostitution, drugs, pre-martial sex, and homosexual marriage, let us remember the failure of Prohibition.
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