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.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?
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.
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?