What Prohibition Should Have Taught Us


Aside from Nazi Germany, I can’t think of a historical phenomenon that gets thrown around more frequently and superficially than Prohibition.

It’ll eventually come up in any debate about abortion, gun control, marijuana legalization–pick your “social issue”–and because neither party knows enough to dispute the received wisdom on the subject, the other guy just says, “But this is different!” and then you argue about whether or not it’s different for a while.

It’s a tremendously versatile talking point; you can trot it out against virtually any law you don’t like, to imply all sorts of nasty things about it: that it’s hypocritical or counterproductive, that it “just drives things underground”, encourages criminality, etc.

I’m not saying that all of those comparisons are invalid–but the fact that everybody uses it, and nobody is convinced by it, is evidence that we don’t really understand it. And that’s a shame, because the experiment of Prohibition could be a lot more instructive if we took it seriously.

First of all, you can totally legislate morality.

This is easily the most frustrating stupidity spawned by Prohibition–not only because it’s wrong, but because it leads down a pointless rabbit-hole of semantics (what does “moral” mean, etc).

Of course you can legislate morality; all laws regulate moral behavior of one kind or another. What people mean when they use this argument is, “You can’t force your (obviously wrong and stupid) morality on me.”

It implies that there’s some clear, factual difference between “good laws” (against murder, theft, rape, etc), and “legislating morality” (whatever you take that to mean). It’s just another way of saying, “I don’t like this law”, except you get to mention Prohibition and turn your opinion into historical fact.

What you can’t do is legislate without consensus.

Prohibition wasn’t repealed because it was the wrong type of law–it was repealed because laws are enforced by willing citizens, not police. Even if every police officer was willing to enforce the law (and they weren’t), there simply weren’t enough of them to punish every violator–or even a significant fraction of them. A large slice of the American public simply did not consider the Volstead Act to be a law worth following, so they didn’t.

Whether that makes it a “failure” depends on how important you think the issue is. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was (and occasionally, still is) conspicuously ignored by Southern citizens and police–but no one has argued that it should have been abandoned as a hopeless blunder.

Instead, we redouble our efforts, and hope that the instrument of law will eventually change the hearts and the culture of the people we imposed it on–and while it hasn’t happened overnight, it does seem to be working. (Which is exactly how the teetotalers felt about the Volstead Act.)

Prohibition passed for a reason

It’s easy to forget, but the 18th Amendment wasn’t ratified in 46 out of 48 states because people back then were stupid. It was ratified because booze was a problem, and most people knew it.

The advent of cheap distilled spirits, combined with a culture of dusk-til-dawn drinking (from the days when most Americans only had access to weak beer and cider), had generated an epidemic of alcoholism that had been swelling for the better part of a century.

The cost of the epidemic was borne partly by the men who succumbed to it, but also by their wives and children, in poverty, neglect, and abuse. It was also borne by the larger society, in maintaining overcrowded poorhouses, orphanages, and prisons–so most people didn’t see it as an issue of personal morality. It had become society’s business.

The temperance movement reasoned that decent Americans had lost their freedom to an industry willing to profit from their suffering, and that a democratic society couldn’t coexist with such a parasitic and exploitative trade.

I’ve seen enough clubs at last call, sending everyone off (in their cars) toward all sorts of lasting personal harm, to confess that I agree with that analysis. But I’m Mormon, so I guess I wouldn’t understand the joys that compensate society for all that human wreckage.

Repeal was a complex decision

In the urban centers of the country, Prohibition was never popular, and the repeal was celebrated; but in rural America (which was still, at that time, most of America), it was met with deep ambivalence.

Prohibition had stemmed the tide of alcoholism all over the country. Alcohol-related crimes and deaths plummeted, and the toxic saloon culture was finally broken. Even after repeal, consumption levels stayed low, and never really came back up again.

But Prohibition had also filled the pockets of gangsters and corrupt cops, and engendered disgusting hypocrisy among lawmakers–as well as brutal, police-state tactics against people who didn’t deserve to be treated like criminals.

Even as they clung to their belief that the law was just and right, most Americans saw what the country would become if they were determined to impose it. That’s the wisdom that America demonstrated by repealing Prohibition, and the lesson that really can be applied to the problems we face.

It’s no surprise that we face dilemmas like this more and more frequently.

Had we taken the proper lessons from Prohibition, we would not have spent the last 60 years struggling to enforce our values in an unwilling world. In the service of a good cause, we’ve spilled blood all over the world, forfeited our moral authority, and lost our peace of conscience–and while we usually get our way, “international law” is as much a contradiction in terms as it ever was.

At home, our bonds of shared culture and morality are becoming thinner, and consensus is getting harder and harder to come by. As our differences grow deeper and more fundamental, you can see the frustration in well-intentioned people, who reason that evildoers must be forced if they cannot be persuaded.

Of course, some evils are intolerable, and sometimes solutions have to be imposed; but If we’re as smart as our great-great-grandparents were, we’ll start to think a lot more carefully about which of our causes are really worth going to war over.

What Prohibition Should Have Taught Us

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