OPINION – It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. In an effort to protect the American public from its excesses, alcohol was effectively outlawed nationwide in 1920 with the ratification of the 18th Amendment.
But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
In 1931, Franklin P. Adams penned a ditty describing the conundrum this legislation created:
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It won’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.
The double-think described in Adams’ poem was as real as could be. Prohibition greatly empowered government while simultaneously creating unparalleled growth opportunities for organized crime. But it did little to curb the age-old desire for strong drink among the American people.
The best thing that can be said about the Prohibition Era is that American politicians still acknowledged that they had no authority to implement it by legislation alone. This is why they had to persuade enough states to implement the Volstead Act in order to amend the Constitution.
Once the 18th Amendment was in place, government grew, freedoms shrank, and a whole new class of criminals was created overnight. The nature of alcohol itself had not changed. It was still a product that had been used for medicinal and recreational purposes for millennia. Then, suddenly it was illegal.
The public’s demand for alcohol did not dissipate out of respect for the law. Instead, it remained nearly constant and to satisfy the ongoing demand, those seeking alcohol were forced to do business with shadowy suppliers.
By removing the legitimate distillers from the light of day, where market forces could impact the quality of their booze, the new suppliers enjoyed a dangerous, government-enforced monopoly. This meant that they could sell tainted or poisonous liquor with no fear of liability.
Greed and sociopathic behavior were the defining characteristics of the underworld alcohol producers.
But Prohibition’s corrupting effect on government was also cause for concern. Bribery of police and other government officials was common. Legislators were lobbied and paid handsomely to keep Prohibition in place because it artificially raised the profit margins for the illegal suppliers.
Prohibition also fed the insatiable addiction to power that attracts some people to government service in the first place. In this case, the desire to control the behavior of others led to the unconscionable official act of poisoning industrial alcohols in order to scare the public away from unlawful booze.
By some estimates, at least 10,000 Americans died from drinking liquor that had been deliberately poisoned by their own government.
After 13 years of growing corruption, a skyrocketing murder rate, and increasing disregard for the law, Prohibition was repealed with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment. Surprisingly, the state of Utah may have played a role in the repeal of Prohibition, despite pleas from LDS church leaders to keep it in place.
80 years later, alcohol is legally available to adults who choose to imbibe. Government still loves to tax and regulate its use, but we don’t have beer truck drivers killing one another over which stores will sell their product.
There is still a societal price to pay even when an intoxicating substance is legally available. But instead of pre-emptively removing an entire society’s freedom over fears of what they might do, we instead hold drinkers accountable for their behavior.
Prohibition was a great object lesson in what happens when we empower the state to handle actions we may find morally objectionable, but that do not cause actual harm to others.
Matthew Woll testified about Prohibition before a judiciary subcommittee in 1926 stating:
Private morals and personal conduct can not be controlled, much less advanced, by fiat of law. Appeal for a higher morality and improved conduct must be directed to the mind and conscience of the people, not to the fear of government.
The most important lesson from the failure of the 18th Amendment is that prohibition is a cure that is worse than the disease it falsely claims to cure. This holds true whether we are applying it to alcohol, drugs, foodstuffs, guns, or any other substance.
It empowers government at the expense of our liberties. It creates incentive for criminal gangs by artificially inflating their profits. But most damaging of all, prohibition punishes everyone without affording individual due process.
It cannot make us better people.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.