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by Peter Moskos

June 10, 2010

The Parable of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent has a new book out, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. I haven't read it yet. But I'll be damned if Johann Hari in Slate hasn't written one of the better book review I've ever read.

It's not easy to keep writing about the absurdity of prohibition in a new way. But until we end drug prohibition, we got to. This whole this is worth a read. Here's a chunk of it:
The hunger for a chemical high, low, or pleasingly new shuffle sideways is universal.
And in every generation, there are moralists who try to douse this natural impulse in moral condemnation and burn it away. They believe that humans, stripped of their intoxicants, will become more rational or ethical or good.
The story of the War on Alcohol has never needed to be told more urgently—because its grandchild, the War on Drugs, shares the same DNA. Okrent alludes to the parallel only briefly, on his final page, but it hangs over the book like old booze-fumes—and proves yet again Mark Twain's dictum: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
When you ban a popular drug that millions of people want, it doesn't disappear. Instead, it is transferred from the legal economy into the hands of armed criminal gangs.
So if [Prohibition] didn't stop alcoholism, what did it achieve? The same as prohibition does today—a massive unleashing of criminality and violence. Gang wars broke out, with the members torturing and murdering one another first to gain control of and then to retain their patches. Thousands of ordinary citizens were caught in the crossfire. The icon of the new criminal class was Al Capone.... But he was an eloquent exponent of his own case, saying simply, "I give to the public what the public wants. I never had to send out high pressure salesmen. Why, I could never meet the demand."
By 1926, he and his fellow gangsters were making $3.6 billion a year—in 1926 money! To give some perspective, that was more than the entire expenditure of the U.S. government. The criminals could outbid and outgun the state. So they crippled the institutions of a democratic state and ruled, just as drug gangs do today in Mexico, Afghanistan, and ghettos from South Central Los Angeles to the banlieues of Paris.
Who now defends alcohol prohibition? Is there a single person left? This echoing silence should suggest something to us. Ending drug prohibition seems like a huge heave, just as ending alcohol prohibition did. But when it is gone, when the drug gangs are a bankrupted memory, when drug addicts are treated not as immoral criminals but as ill people needing health care, who will grieve? American history is pocked by utopian movements that prefer glib wishful thinking over a hard scrutiny of reality, but they inevitably crest and crash in the end. Okrent's dazzling history leaves us with one whiskey-sharp insight above all others: The War on Alcohol and the War on Drugs failed because they were, beneath all the blather, a war on human nature.
Read the complete version in Slate.


Jay Livingston said...

"So if [Prohibition] didn't stop alcoholism, what did it achieve?" Stop, no; slow down, yes. I don't have the data handy, but I think that indicators like hospital admissions related to alcohol show that Prohibition did reduce not just the overall amount of liquor consumption but the ills of excessive drinking. Of course, it had other consequences that outweighed the benefits.

(By the way, Okrent is one of the better participants over at Old Jews Telling Jokes.)

PCM said...

I don't the data do show that. The data on consumption are mixed (overall consumption may have gone up while median consumption per person went down).

But I just don't trust "dry" data from the 1920s. They weren't very trustworthy.

And deaths and injuries related to what people thought was alcohol certainly went up.

Jay Livingston said...

A quick Google turned up this:

Prohibition did not change the attitudes of most Americans about the morality of drinking. But it did succeed at eliminating 170,000 saloons, and drunkenness during Prohibition decreased. In New York and Massachusetts, two states that had no restrictions on alcohol consumption before 1920, hospital admissions for alcoholism declined sharply. Admissions to state mental institutions for dementia and psychosis caused by alcoholism also declined. Under Prohibition, deaths from alcohol-related diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver, fell, and arrests for drunkenness decreased. . . .

For the working class, liquor simply became too expensive, and so rates of consumption decreased. The price of a quart of beer or a quart of gin was five to six times higher in 1930 than before Prohibition. However, as bootlegging increased, medical problems linked to alcohol use began to rise again. Still, they did not reach the high levels experienced before 1920.


And this:

We estimate the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition using mortality, mental health and crime statistics. We find that alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60-70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.

*Published: The American Economic Review, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 242-247, (May 1991).

PCM said...

Those seem to make sense.

But remember, and I say this having done a fair amount of research on the subject for Cop in the Hood, we just don't know.

A lot of research goes back to the same few more original sources. And the sources back then (just like the war on the drugs today) were filled with lies and propaganda. And even the best intentioned research had to deal with missing data.

We'll never know sure.

In a more qualitative way, I'll say this: Prohibition worked best in communities that wanted it and didn't work in those in which it went against the will of the majority.