Why Prohibition Was an Unworkable Law from the Start
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series that discusses the necessity of crafting laws that have both solid moral underpinnings and reasonable methods of enactment in order to gain public compliance. Read the first article.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
When Prohibition was enacted, the stated intention was to curb alcoholism, family violence, and other negative societal phenomena assumed to be associated with drinking. These are all ostensibly solid moral arguments against the consumption of alcohol because no decent person wants to support activity that leads to abuse, illness, or death. However, many Americans questioned the true motives behind the legislation.
Prohibition was pushed through Congress by a coalition of religious politicians for whom scripture was the basis of their argument for nationwide abstinence from alcohol (there was a history of this movement among religious groups preceding Prohibition and dating back to the early 19th century). As a result, many citizens considered Prohibition a form of proselytizing and forcing the religious beliefs of a minority down the throats of the population at large, rather than a measure to address public health and safety.
Did Prohibition Work?
Prohibition banned only the production and sale of alcohol, not its consumption. But, of course, most Americans had no way to access booze other than by purchasing it from the marketplace. As a result, while Prohibition was in effect the law did in fact greatly reduce alcohol consumption, which in turn reduced alcohol-related diseases and infant mortality. On the surface, it appeared as if the law did work insofar as it reduced harm among the public. But that wasn’t the full story of the impact of Prohibition.
Prohibition Did Not End the Production, Sale or Consumption of Alcohol
Alcohol production, sale and consumption didn’t stop during Prohibition. They simply went underground. Illegal establishments called speakeasies sprang up everywhere. What once was a legitimate industry that complied with the law, and contributed to the tax base, became an underground, black-market operation that gave rise to organized crime syndicates across the country. These criminal enterprises illegally manufactured alcoholic beverages, which led to bootleggers and rum runners often protecting their territory through violence. Eventually, it took federal intervention to stem the lawlessness that Prohibition permitted and abetted.
And Prohibition also caused considerable harm to the public. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people died due to the consumption of unsafe or tainted alcohol produced without any regulatory oversight or accountability. Countless people exploited loopholes, such as claiming alcohol use for religious purposes or medical prescriptions, just to gain access to it. Some states even declined to enforce Prohibition or support it in any way.
Prohibition Violated Americans’ Sense of Freedom
Most Americans embrace the basic libertarian principle that individuals should be free to do as they please, even when one’s choices result in harm to themselves, just as long as they aren’t harming others in the process. This is why people are free to smoke cigarettes in their homes, eat unhealthy foods, or engage in risky activities, so long as they aren’t endangering others.
It’s true that alcohol can provoke a person to harm others around them, with or without intending to do so. For example, someone under the influence of alcohol might mistreat a loved one during a substance-fueled violent outburst or hit a crosswalk full of pedestrians while driving drunk.
But we must ask whether such outcomes are the exception or the rule. In other words, is it the case that most people who drink end up hurting others when they do so? Or are such incidents just the infrequent and unfortunate outcomes of misuse and subsequent bad decisions from a minority of drinkers?
A majority would agree that it’s the latter, and that most people who consume alcohol pose no threat to others when they drink. So then we must ask the next question: Was the prohibition of alcohol the most reasonable means of addressing the social problems our government wished to solve?
Probably not, or at least that ended up being the public consensus during the Prohibition era. It is true that alcohol is a contributing factor to a lot of societal harms, but many of those harms could be mitigated without a complete ban on the industry. Instead, measures such as age-limit restrictions, serving-limit laws, strong drunk-driving penalties, and other legalities can address those same concerns without banning alcohol altogether.
Given the confluence of the two primary factors—skepticism about the sincerity of the stated purpose and disagreement over the methods—the people resisted Prohibition. We know the rest of the story well.
Eventually, politicians realized that the American citizenry simply would not abide the government dictating an outright ban on alcohol. People would always find a way to drink if they wanted to, the law be damned! If the government intended to dig its heels in on Prohibition, then it had better come to terms with the fact that it was creating more problems than it was solving in doing so. After 13 painful years of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, the government conceded and the law was repealed in 1933.
Was Anything Learned from the Failure of Prohibition?
This country should have learned from the outcome of Prohibition that when crafting new laws moral reasoning must be clear and methods must be reasonable. Yet, it took some states 20 or 30 years after the repeal of Prohibition to follow suit with state legislation. And even today there are still “dry” counties in which the purchase of alcohol is illegal.
Despite the failure of Prohibition and the clear lessons learned from it, there remain current laws in today’s society that also fail to connect the need for moral footing and a successful method of approach to gain public compliance. In subsequent articles in this series, we will discuss some of these current laws, beginning with the utterly incompetent “war on drugs” over the last 50 or so years.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.