Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Prohibition, Feminism, and the Indian State

My children regard Prohibition as the most absurd thing that ever happened in America. Indeed it is almost impossible to make any contemporary American understand the forces that led to the alcohol ban in a nation where dramatic change of any sort is so difficult to achieve. But recent events in India may help to explain it:
Dozens of women brandishing brooms swooped down on a straw house in this village on a recent Saturday, sending the owner fleeing through a rice field as they seized buckets of fruit juice being fermented into a cheap liquor. An hour’s drive away, a group of village women followed the scent of alcohol into a cornfield to find vats of moonshine dug into the ground, which they guarded for several hours until the police arrived.

Like so many disciples of Carry Nation, the temperance advocate who took a hatchet to United States saloons at the turn of the 20th century, village women are taking matters into their own hands, enforcing a prohibition law in Bihar, one of India’s poorest, most agrarian states. Though per capita income is less than $600 a year, many if not most men used to routinely spend much of their money on alcohol, further impoverishing their families. “It was the acceptable norm to be drunk,” said Raj Kumar Prasad, the chief of the Halsi police station, which oversees 50 villages, including Bandol.

But that has changed, the authorities and villagers say, adding that the law imposing severe penalties for the sale and consumption of alcohol seems to have worked remarkably well. The crime rate has fallen sharply, government figures show, and spending on things like motorbikes and appliances has risen significantly. And almost everyone credits the vigilance of the women of Bihar for most of the law’s success. . . .

Women had long complained that alcohol was impoverishing their families, and the results in the year since the measure has been in effect bear those grievances out. Murders and gang robberies are down almost 20 percent from a year earlier, and riots by 13 percent. Fatal traffic accidents fell by 10 percent.

At the same time, household spending has risen, with milk sales up more than 10 percent and cheese sales growing by 200 percent six months after the ban. Sales of two-wheeled vehicles rose more than 30 percent, while sales of electrical appliances rose by 50 percent. Brick houses are rising in villages where mud huts used to predominate.
So, my freedom-loving readers, are the women right? Or is taking better care of their families not worth the cost in lost freedom? Is the question moot because the whole thing will inevitably fall apart as bootleggers get cleverer and the police get bored or bribed?

What is the long term effect going to be? Temperance advocates in the 19th century all thought it would enhance productivity and economic growth. Will it, or  will it just move money from legitimate bar owners to gangsters? Does drinking actually increase productivity in the long run by providing a "safety valve," or by helping  resign workers to their fates? Will the cost of jailing all the drinkers bankrupt the state and drain the economy? Is it cruel to ask men to labor at tough jobs without alcohol to deaden their pains? If working men drink away a big chunk of their pay while their families suffer, is that their business, or should the state get involved?

I do not think it is true, as some libertarians say, that anti-drug laws make no difference because people get what they want anyway. Our experience with prescription opiates seems to show that when drugs are more readily available, people abuse them more. So when does the cost of increased abuse justify a ban on any drug?

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"So, my freedom-loving readers, are the women right? Or is taking better care of their families not worth the cost in lost freedom?"

The problem with this sort of calculation is that much of the time, many people fail to account for the fact that freedoms are often mutually exclusive, and that increasing one person's specific form of freedom can directly decrease the freedoms of others.

Orson Welles opined that:

"There's a price for everything. There is nothing that does not have its cost. Joy and inspiration and mere pleasure, have a market value precisely computed in terms of their opposites. The cost of youth is age, the cost of age is death. You want love? The cost of love is independence. You want to be independent, do you? Then pay the price and know what it is to be alone. Your mother paid for you with pain. Nothing, nothing in this living world is free. The free air costs you the life consuming effort of breath. Freedom itself is priced at the rate of the citizenship it earns and holds."

It's true that forcibly preventing someone from drinking themselves into a stupor decreases their own personal freedom. But at the same time, it overwhelmingly often increases the freedoms of those around them.

A drunkard's wife and children receive more freedom when their father can't waste the family's meagre finances on drink, selfishly forcing hardship onto them. The local community receives more freedom when they have to deal with less disruptive behavior caused by drunkeness. The local police have less work to do, the local doctors as well, crime goes down, spending goes up, the community overall improves and prospers, people become friendly and more trusting, the area becomes a nicer place to live, et cetera.

Freedoms extend only until they unduly infringe upon the freedoms of others, and not all freedoms are created equal. We deny certain freedoms in favor of others. We don't allow people the freedom to drink and drive, because that infringes heavily upon other people's freedom to not be exposed to undue mortal peril. We also don't allow unlicensed or uninsured drivers, for much the same reason.

To some, these restrictions may seem like unjust impositions against the freedoms of the individual. The typical argument that if a person is willing to take the risk, they should be allowed to do anything. But risks are never taken in a vacuum. Nothing does not have its cost. It's just a question of who ends up paying that cost. Those who champion the freedoms of the individual seem not to realize that the cost of such individual freedoms is born by countless others, against their will.