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Prohibition

Posted Oct 30 2008 3:30pm

Mental Floss offers a brief take on alcohol prohibition as part of it's 20 greatest mistakes in history. Here's an excerpt:
It certainly seemed like a great idea at the time: Just outlaw liquor and, bam!, goodbye social ills of every stripe—from the Germans to the Irish. Yes, pandering to xenophobia was the favorite tactic among Prohibition crusaders, who painted saloons as a filthy underworld brimming with undesirable foreigners. Ultimately, however, the event that probably did the most to push America toward Prohibition was the country’s 1917 entry into World War I. Prohibitionists began arguing that all of America’s resources were needed to fight the German menace, using the logic that, if the government needed to maximize agricultural production to win the war, then it couldn’t waste all that grain on booze. Apparently, their message worked. By the end of 1917, the majority of Americans were living in alcohol-free states or counties.
It appears that Mental Floss's facts are wrong. This article presents a contrary view:

First, the regime created in 1919 by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which charged the Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions, was far from all-embracing. The amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages; it did not prohibit use, nor production for one's own consumption. Moreover, the provisions did not take effect until a year after passage -plenty of time for people to stockpile supplies.

Second, alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928.

Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Third, violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition's 14 year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.

Fourth, following the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption increased. Today, alcohol is estimated to be the cause of more than 23,000 motor vehicle deaths and is implicated in more than half of the nation's 20,000 homicides. In contrast, drugs have not yet been persuasively linked to highway fatalities and are believed to account for 10 percent to 20 percent of homicides.

Prohibition did not end alcohol use. What is remarkable, however, is that a relatively narrow political movement, relying on a relatively weak set of statutes, succeeded in reducing, by one-third, the consumption of a drug that had wide historical and popular sanction.

The suggestion that alcohol prohibition was all bad is just as silly as suggesting that nothing good could come of decriminalization of marijuana. Each policy has problems. As I've said before the important question is which problems you want to live with.
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