Saturday, January 18, 2020
Thinking about Prohibition
And then fifteen years later the amendment was quietly repealed without much more opposition than it had met being enacted, and it was soon remembered as nothing more than a failure and a joke. What was that about?
As to why people opposed the sale of liquor, that seems obvious to me: because it has killed millions of people and impoverished millions more. None of the other drugs that we have at various times tried to ban has ever come close to the level of harm inflicted by alcohol. Of course it has also led to a a great deal of happiness, fun, and so on, but that is true of any drug people take for pleasure. Why, then, does banning alcohol seem ridiculous? And what does that say about the whole enterprise of government, and of all our attempts at moral reform?
My eldest son was puzzled by this list of prohibitionists and asked, "Are they for freedom or against it?" Well, both, in certain circumstances. Just as they opposed the freedom to own slaves, they also opposed the freedom to profit from exploiting the addiction of alcoholics and impoverishing working families. In the world today the most active temperance movement is in rural India, where groups of women have been smashing up the unlicensed saloons where their husbands get drunk. Which rights are more important, those of the men to get drunk and the saloon keepers to sell to them, or those of the women and children to food and shelter?
But while I very much understand the impulses that drive prohibition, I don't support and doubt it could ever be made to work.
This takes my thoughts toward what humans are and what we can and cannot do. We cannot, it seems to me, be all that good. Some level of sin is essential to us. For many people, happiness depends on some sort of chemical that changes what it feels like to be alive. If we try to take that way we will likely fail, and the costs of that attempt will be high.
That is what the US found during Prohibition. At first the nation's consumption of alcohol declined quite a bit, but it didn't take long for gangsters and speakeasys to fill the void left by legal saloons. By the time Prohibition was repealed, consumption was higher than ever, or at least that's what FDR and other advocates for repeal claimed. Moonshine and bathtub gin also poisoned many people, more than 10,000 fatally. Al Capone was only the most famous of a whole army of rum runners whose violence led to a rise in the murder rate and a spreading feeling of danger.
It just didn't work.
One of the greatest challenges we face in organizing our societies is finding the line between what we can try to ban and what we have to accept. Because any attempt to reform us beyond what our weak hearts can stand will only fail and probably leave things worse than before.