We can learn from prohibition

I recently rewatched Ken Burns’ fascinating documentary on prohibition. Prohibition was a 1920-1933 nationwide ban on production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act that filled it out didn’t ban alcohol possession and consumption. One of the interesting questions about it is whether Prohibition worked.

One 1991 study by Harvard’s Jeffrey Miron and Stanford’s Jeffrey Ziebel found that during Prohibition, per capita alcohol usage initially decreased by 30%. They argue that alcohol use later bounced back to only 60-70% of its pre-prohibition level. A 2017 study by several Simon Frasier University economists found that in the six years following prohibition (1934-1939), the end of Prohibition caused as many as 27,000 additional infants to die. On the other hand, Ludwig von Mises Institute economist Mark Thornton argues that per capita alcohol usage dropped precipitously before Prohibition and that if Prohibition had continued past 1933, it likely would have would have reached pre-prohibition level.

On health and crime, the studies are again mixed. One study found that death rates from cirrhosis of the liver, considered a proxy measure for alcohol consumption, declined by 10-20%. Another study found that alcoholism-related deaths, alcoholic psychosis admissions, and arrests for public drunkenness declined when Prohibition and related cultural changes went into effect. Again, however, it is unclear whether this resulted from forces that preceded Prohibition. Thornton argues that cirrhosis deaths bottomed out during World War I and then rebounded.

There is some evidence that Prohibition caused a significant increase in serious crime (for example, assault, burglary, murder, and robbery). This can be seen in the dramatic decline in these crimes once Prohibition was lifted. On the other hand, Harvard’s Mark H. Moore argues that violent crime didn’t dramatically increase during Prohibition. University of California at Chico’s Kenneth Rose argues that the statistics from the period are so poor that no conclusion regarding Prohibition’s effect on crime is warranted.

During Prohibition, the U.S. government was despicable. Writing in Slate, Deborah Blume notes that federal officials wanted to prevent industrial alcohols from being stolen by bootleggers and resold for consumption. To prevent this, they mixed it with a deadly poison. New York City medical examiners told them not to because the alcohol would be resold and end up killing people. It certainly did. The poisoning program killed at least 10,000 Americans. If another government had done this, it would have meant war.

American people’s liberty should not depend whether the latest scheme to improve people’s lives works. It is wrong for a do-gooder to use a gun or physical violence to prevent her fun-loving neighbor from being promiscuous, drinking whiskey, overeating, or smoking even if the prevention would make the neighbor’s life go better. It is even worse if the do-gooder were to prevent her neighbor from having such fun so that the do-gooder could shield her precious children from these recreational activities or make sense of her husband’s or son’s senseless death. If this is true for individuals, it is true for collections of individuals. The moral character of violence and coercion doesn’t change merely because more people are involved. Nor does it change when do-gooders act through the government rather wielding guns themselves.

Unsurprisingly, do-gooders such as the Anti-Saloon League supported changing the Constitution to allow for federal income taxes. The 16th Amendment’s passage made the Eighteenth Amendment’s passage more likely because it reduced government’s dependence on alcohol-related taxes. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union wanted to prohibit polygamy, prostitution, and tobacco. It also widely promoted educational material that included outrageous lies about alcohol. When it comes to improving adults and protecting children, a do-gooders’ work is never done.

What is interesting is how with time this lesson has been lost. CNN reports that in 2017, 70,000 Americans died from overdose. Despite a federal prohibition on the unauthorized sale and consumption of opioids, 48,000 of these overdose deaths were from opioids. This catastrophe is taken as evidence that more police officers and specialized courts are needed as are more and harsher prison sentences. This despite the fact that unauthorized opioid distribution and possession are already felonies. With the federal prohibition on these drugs working so disastrously, one wonders why anyone would want more of the same.

Without the 18th Amendment, Prohibition would have been unconstitutional. The federal government was not merely regulating interstate commerce when it banned alcohol production and sale within a state. Nor was the ban a necessary and proper means by which the federal government executed one of its other constitutional powers (see Article I Section 8). As a result, without the 18th Amendment, the right to use alcohol would have been held by the people. The right to regulate it, if there were such a right, would be held by the states. Unlike alcohol prohibition, federal drug prohibition is now considered constitutional. Some of the judges deciding such cases and police officers enforcing such laws even take an oath to uphold the Constitution.

Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Most Americans still can’t legally buy or use marijuana. Writing for The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham points out that in 2016 there were almost as many marijuana users as cigarette smokers (55 versus 59 million). Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called for a cigarette-free society. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole thought that the national drinking age could reasonably be set at 24. The Centers for Disease Control recently proposed prohibiting certain flavored vape products in order to, you guessed it, protect the children. Thirteen Democratic candidates want to criminalize and confiscate people’s AR-15 rifles, despite the fact that Americans own 5-10 million of them.

Prohibition is a warning from the past. We should heed it.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com