The Centennial of Prohibition

No matter what the aim is of a particular government policy, the consequences of government action are nearly always worse than government inaction.  January 16, 1919 was a perfect example of that principle in operation.  Prohibition, by constitutional amendment, became the law of the land.  The federal government was now going to be the principal means of regulating alcohol consumption in America.

There is no doubt that drinking too much chronically is damaging, not only to the alcoholic but to those closest to him as well.  The story is as old as human history.  Statist attempts to stop drunkenness, however, have always failed.  This is particularly true of centralized statism, which eliminates the marketplace of governments that state and local governments provide.

Before federal Prohibition, state governments had long pursued their own individualized approaches to controlling the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol.  These reflected the mores and beliefs of citizens of these states, with the rights of each state through tolerance of different attitudes supporting the rights of all states to take different varieties of statist "governance."

There is a myth perpetuated by leftists that in the absence of statist governance, there is no governance at all.  In fact, self-governance or voluntary communal governance almost always works better than statist government, which is ultimately based upon force.  Few examples of that self-governance or communal governance are more evident than in the case of excessive alcohol consumption.

Who does not grasp the myriad ways in which the self-governance of alcohol consumption manifests?  Surely, anyone who has had a hangover has felt the sting of consuming an excessive amount of alcohol.  Individuals hurt themselves by drinking too much in other ways.  It makes them sick in body and in mind.  Booze costs money.  It costs the drunkard family relationships, friendships, and public reputation.  Moreover, these pains come almost immediately and automatically, without any statist control at all.

Statist Prohibition also created government jobs in terms of dedicated police, prosecutors, courts, parole officers, and prisons.  These state employees, like all state employees, had a vested career interest in the problems of alcoholism not being solved.  This does not mean that these folks were indifferent; rather, simply, it means that their jobs and promotions would wither if the problem they are hired to control was, in fact, controlled.

Even worse was the corruption of police, prosecutors, and courts as organized crime bought protection, and crime bosses like Al Capone used Prohibition to provide what much of the public wanted but could not lawfully obtain, save through the seedy conduits of criminal organizations.

Prohibition also actually endangered public health by turning people to bathtub gin, moonshine, and other clandestinely manufactured alcohol.  Sloppy, cut-rate, and incompetently made alcohol took the place of established, family-owned vineyards and breweries.  This also meant that good-paying jobs were lost to the economy, and tax revenues dropped.

Classes of Americans who had traditionally been the most decent, law-abiding, hard-working, and responsible citizens – devout Catholics and Orthodox Jews, for example – needed wine for religious purposes.  The special exemptions carved out for such groups inevitably made for gray areas in the law.  What made that even more galling is that the devout Catholic and Orthodox Jews were the sort of Americans who were the least likely to become drunkards.

Self-destructive behavior requires no statist response.  Proper self-governance is natural and proportional, whether illegal or not, if governance is required.  There are, of course, what appear to be exceptions.  Drunk driving is and ought to be punished by the state, but that is because the drivers are licensed by the state, and the roads are built and maintained by the state and used by the drunk drivers.  These are not really exceptions at all.

Prohibition was an effort to do something that sounds fine on paper, but all attempts to regulate vice by statist governance fail on every level.  We ought to have learned a vital lesson from Prohibition, but somehow the lesson seems to have been seen as only a problem with statist governance of alcohol.

The left, in particular, seems to have utterly compartmentalized the lessons of Prohibition.  Consider the leftist war on tobacco.  Leftists seek hyper-regulation of tobacco, a much lesser vice than alcoholism, by limiting smoking to certain areas, by levying increasingly heavy taxes on tobacco, by warning labels and the like.  Smug in the feeling that they are doing good, leftists really are creating problems by pushing legislation and regulation so solve a problem that is actually a matter of private choice.

The more liberty we have, the more chance we have to truly reform our lives by personal choice and not by statist coercion, and the more problems we truly solve.  One century ago, we had the chance to see the dreadful results of using the state to do what individuals on their own ought to do.  Often, it seems that we have learned nothing at all from the disaster called "Prohibition."

No matter what the aim is of a particular government policy, the consequences of government action are nearly always worse than government inaction.  January 16, 1919 was a perfect example of that principle in operation.  Prohibition, by constitutional amendment, became the law of the land.  The federal government was now going to be the principal means of regulating alcohol consumption in America.

There is no doubt that drinking too much chronically is damaging, not only to the alcoholic but to those closest to him as well.  The story is as old as human history.  Statist attempts to stop drunkenness, however, have always failed.  This is particularly true of centralized statism, which eliminates the marketplace of governments that state and local governments provide.

Before federal Prohibition, state governments had long pursued their own individualized approaches to controlling the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol.  These reflected the mores and beliefs of citizens of these states, with the rights of each state through tolerance of different attitudes supporting the rights of all states to take different varieties of statist "governance."

There is a myth perpetuated by leftists that in the absence of statist governance, there is no governance at all.  In fact, self-governance or voluntary communal governance almost always works better than statist government, which is ultimately based upon force.  Few examples of that self-governance or communal governance are more evident than in the case of excessive alcohol consumption.

Who does not grasp the myriad ways in which the self-governance of alcohol consumption manifests?  Surely, anyone who has had a hangover has felt the sting of consuming an excessive amount of alcohol.  Individuals hurt themselves by drinking too much in other ways.  It makes them sick in body and in mind.  Booze costs money.  It costs the drunkard family relationships, friendships, and public reputation.  Moreover, these pains come almost immediately and automatically, without any statist control at all.

Statist Prohibition also created government jobs in terms of dedicated police, prosecutors, courts, parole officers, and prisons.  These state employees, like all state employees, had a vested career interest in the problems of alcoholism not being solved.  This does not mean that these folks were indifferent; rather, simply, it means that their jobs and promotions would wither if the problem they are hired to control was, in fact, controlled.

Even worse was the corruption of police, prosecutors, and courts as organized crime bought protection, and crime bosses like Al Capone used Prohibition to provide what much of the public wanted but could not lawfully obtain, save through the seedy conduits of criminal organizations.

Prohibition also actually endangered public health by turning people to bathtub gin, moonshine, and other clandestinely manufactured alcohol.  Sloppy, cut-rate, and incompetently made alcohol took the place of established, family-owned vineyards and breweries.  This also meant that good-paying jobs were lost to the economy, and tax revenues dropped.

Classes of Americans who had traditionally been the most decent, law-abiding, hard-working, and responsible citizens – devout Catholics and Orthodox Jews, for example – needed wine for religious purposes.  The special exemptions carved out for such groups inevitably made for gray areas in the law.  What made that even more galling is that the devout Catholic and Orthodox Jews were the sort of Americans who were the least likely to become drunkards.

Self-destructive behavior requires no statist response.  Proper self-governance is natural and proportional, whether illegal or not, if governance is required.  There are, of course, what appear to be exceptions.  Drunk driving is and ought to be punished by the state, but that is because the drivers are licensed by the state, and the roads are built and maintained by the state and used by the drunk drivers.  These are not really exceptions at all.

Prohibition was an effort to do something that sounds fine on paper, but all attempts to regulate vice by statist governance fail on every level.  We ought to have learned a vital lesson from Prohibition, but somehow the lesson seems to have been seen as only a problem with statist governance of alcohol.

The left, in particular, seems to have utterly compartmentalized the lessons of Prohibition.  Consider the leftist war on tobacco.  Leftists seek hyper-regulation of tobacco, a much lesser vice than alcoholism, by limiting smoking to certain areas, by levying increasingly heavy taxes on tobacco, by warning labels and the like.  Smug in the feeling that they are doing good, leftists really are creating problems by pushing legislation and regulation so solve a problem that is actually a matter of private choice.

The more liberty we have, the more chance we have to truly reform our lives by personal choice and not by statist coercion, and the more problems we truly solve.  One century ago, we had the chance to see the dreadful results of using the state to do what individuals on their own ought to do.  Often, it seems that we have learned nothing at all from the disaster called "Prohibition."