A Lesson From Prohibition

Imagine a scene: an intimate gathering where people are boozing, dancing, and laughing the night away, terrified in the back of their minds that the police will burst in at any moment. However, not even the police, the law, nor politicians are able to prevent the continuation of such parties. This is something familiar, not only to generation lockdown, but to the generation of Americans who spent a decade hosting and attending these banned events. 

In 1919 lawmakers in the US enacted the National Prohibition Act to enforce the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, transport, and sale of “intoxicating liquors.” Under the terms of the act, prohibition began on 17th January 1920, capitulating Americans into a social experiment unknown to mankind. Yet, as with the beginning of our own Roaring 20s, people found ways to enjoy themselves in spite of the draconian restrictions. Today’s police have shut down more than 3,000 gatherings in Scotland since late August and by the end of the 1920s there were an estimated 200,000 illegal speakeasies in the US. 

Despite these clear breaches of the law, the sentiment behind prohibition was not insane as it might seen. Alcohol, especially when consumed in large and frequent quantities, is a dangerous drug. The 2004 Global Burden of Disease project estimated that violence associated with alcohol was responsible for 248,000 deaths annually worldwide. Meanwhile, in 2018 the UK witnessed 11.9 alcohol-specific deaths per 100,000, consistent with previous years. Given this mortality rate, it is certainly not unreasonable for governments to dissuade people from drinking.

The US government also undertook prohibition to reduce other significant problems it faced: crime and violence. The Anti-Saloon League, for example, used prohibition to attack Saloons, which were centres of drunkenness, gambling, drugs, prostitution, and political corruption. Banning alcohol was a sure-fire way of eliminating these dens of debauchery.

Prohibition did undeniably have some positive effects. It is estimated that alcohol consumption decreased between 30% and 50%. As a result, liver cirrhosis deaths declined by as much as 20%. Meanwhile, arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined by 50% between 1916 and 1922. However, if one infers from these statistics that prohibition was a success, they are sorely mistaken. Mostly the desired effects did not occur, and instead, Americans suffered from the unintended consequence of such a flawed method of regulation. The US libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute argued that prohibition ‘was a miserable failure on all counts’ as people’s desire to drink outweighed their regard for the law. Ultimately, the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933 by the 21st amendment, thus making it the only rescinded constitutional amendment in US history. Prohibition was sealed off as a failure. 

In reality, Alcohol consumption rose steadily after the initial drop to an all‐time low during the 1921 depression. In 1921, Americans consumed 0.25 gallons of alcohol but by 1929 they were consuming 1.3 gallons per year. Considering the astronomical levels of spending on the enforcement of prohibition, the rise in consumption is shocking; the annual budget of the Bureau of Prohibition increased from $4.4 million to $13.4 million during the 1920s. Historian Lisa McGirr argued in her book ‘The War on Alcohol’ that it was not the efficiency of enforcement at fault, but the class bias of enforcement: whilst politicians and bankers were able to secretively drink to their hearts’ content, a war was waged against working class drinkers.

Prohibition also inflicted a great deal of damage on American society. Firstly, prohibition was a great example of the “iron law of prohibition” – the harder the enforcement, the increased potency of the banned substance. Whilst the price of beer increased by more than 700%, spirit prices only did so by 270%, thereby making them a far more attractive alternative. Products like moonshine became highly popular whilst there were very few productions standards for alcoholic beverages due to their illegality.

Secondly, the laws caused prohibitionists to lose control over establishments serving alcohol; they could no longer use local ordinances, taxes, licensing laws and regulations to discourage drinking. The elimination of these tools allowed for the establishment of speakeasies in previously dry areas such as business districts and middle-class suburbs.

Thirdly – and most importantly – prohibition prompted a catastrophic surge in crime. A study of 30 major U.S. cities found the number of crimes committed grew by 24% between 1920 and 1921. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct also increased by 41% and arrests of drunken drivers went up by a significant 81%. Evidently, those who wanted to continue drinking did so. However, prohibition forced drinkers to turn to the black market. Organised crime therefore flourished during the 1920s as criminal gangs, such as the one headed by Al Capone, received a steady flow of income from providing alcohol to ordinary citizens. This sparked violent catastrophes such as the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, where Capone’s men decimated the O’Banion gang. Simultaneously, this also caused the destruction of the alcohol industry. From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits decreased from $365 million to $13 million and revenue from fermented liquors fell from $117 million to almost zero. The profitable alcohol industry was replaced by crime.

Prohibition is state intervention at its finest. Such an intervention does not respect people’s ability to make their own choices and therefore fails time and time again. We see this occur throughout global history: anti-abortion laws encourage desperate women to seek fatal abortion methods; raising taxes leads to more avoidance or evasion; stricter lockdown rules reduce compliance. Too many governments impose these brutal laws that inevitably result in fatal consequences. Instead it is key to inform and educate the public to allow them to decide what is right. Laws are necessary to prevent catastrophes such as murder, rape, and corruption. They are there to protect, not control citizens, who in most instances will not exploit the good faith placed upon them. Citizens, who deserve a choice on how they live.

‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ We do not live in a perfect world, but we can achieve a good, free one. Seeking perfection above all else ignores the fact that humans are flawed. There will always be poverty, crime, and illness, but we cannot sacrifice our liberties for the unattainable. Prohibition may have reduced overall alcohol consumption, but at a great cost to the US. It is time today’s politicians learn from prohibitionists and take a step back from controlling our lives. It is time the people take back control. 

Olivia Groom

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the views of the The Liberty Club

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