Prohibition of Alcohol in America (Quick Reflection)

This following is as a brief critique of the notion (sometimes expressed) that the 1933 repeal of nation-wide liquor laws in the USA is a knockdown argument against new forms of ‘prohibition’. “Prohibition never works. Look at Prohibition in America”.

The standard argument is as follows: consuming alcohol was very common in America. It was banned; yet many people still wanted to consume it. Therefore an extremely powerful criminal underworld emerged to produce and distribute alcohol; underground saloons sprung up, and the huge number of people who now consumed alcohol became ‘law breakers overnight’.

‘When there’s a will there’s a way’

I suspect it is no coincidence that this account sits in harmony with basic economic principles and the rule of ‘supply and demand’ – there was demand and therefore there developed a market. But the suggestion that barriers preventing people from obtaining what they desire will always erode of necessity (and a more harmful and unregulated system emerge), hides many complexities.

The wills are many as are the ‘ways’

In simple terms, prohibition fails when the will and ability to subvert the law (and its punishments) outclasses the will and ability to uphold the law.  In other words, the success or failure of prohibition is a result of the specific factors involved in the case (the arrangement of ‘wills’, availability of ways) rather than something intrinsic to prohibition itself.

Some specifics of the American Nation-Wide Prohibition 1920 – 1933

In understanding why Prohibition eventually failed so spectacularly it is useful to consider its particular context. Here are a few: alcohol is low tech and easily manufactured; alcohol has intrinsic value (it relaxes or disinhibits); it has symbolic value: related to a masculine ideal, or idea of a good time. Also, the extent of the ban was absolute, allowing no ‘pressure relief’ to cushion the severity of the law. This lack of pressure relief meant that the social function performed by alcohol, a relaxant after work, and as instituted in business practice -i.e. discussing a deal over a drink- was neglected.  This prohibition occurred at at time when relaxation was highly desirable- the era of the Great Depression.

Ultimately the government failed to win the argument with a highly individualistic people.

Few substances share the same characteristics as alcohol, and the social context of the 1930s America were unique. As a comparison, consider ‘soft drinks’ which are similar in that they are widely drunk, have symbolic value, and pose a health risk when consumed too often; yet soft drinks lack intrinsic value, they don’t have exclusive reign over a social function, and they are perhaps too easily manufactured. Would a massive black-market and criminal network develop to satiate the people’s will for soft drink were it prohibited?

This was the first ‘quick reflection’. The point is to raise an idea for contemplation [edited for brevity]