Did Prohibition work? People commonly believe that National Prohibition failed. It’s true that it didn’t stop drinking. But it still may have provided benefits.
II. Did Prohibition Work?
III. Did It Improve Health?
IV. On Balance, Did It Work?
V. The Future
People occasionally still argue about whether or not Prohibition worked.
It’s important to look at issues in their entirety. For example, estimates of the costs of crime typically consider only one side of the ledger. If a thief steals a new $1,000 electronic device, it’s typically counted as a $1,000 cost of crime. The theft supposedly ‘cost society’ $1,000.
That’s clearly false. The victim replaces the device with another, perhaps using insurance money. That generates a commission for the salesperson. It generates a profit for the retailer. Also generated is a profit to the importer. It generates tax revenue for government. And so on.
Similarly, the thief has profited from his crime. The fence makes a profit. And the consumer who buys the device benefits from its low price. Many people and entities benefit from the crime.
Then the thief is caught. Police officers benefit. The judge and other lawyers benefit. The thief goes to a correctional facility (prison) for this and his many other crimes. More people benefit. The corrections officers (guards) benefit. The staff psychologists benefit. The parole officers later benefit. The social workers benefit.
If crime dropped too steeply, that would harm many people. Some would lose their jobs. So the theft didn’t ‘cost society’ $1,000. How much it cost, if anything, is difficult to estimate. Perhaps it stimulated the economy and society profited.
II. Did Prohibition Work?
What were the effects of Prohibition? There were great emotional, non-economic costs. Drinking toxic moonshine paralyzed, blinded and even killed thousands of people. Gang violence accidentally injured or killed innocent victims. People suffered emotional trauma.They also suffered loss of confidence in government, law, religion, and authority.
When he visited the U.S. in 1921, Albert Einstein expressed his view.
“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”1
But there were many who benefitted from Prohibition. People in organized crime clearly benefitted. Thanks to the government, the value of their illegal products skyrocketed. This generated enormous fortunes almost overnight. The bootleggers used their untaxed income to corrupt Prohibition agents, police, border guards, and officials at all levels of government.
In essence, people got money not to do their jobs. It was ‘easy money.’ Others got money to tip off gangsters about raids in advance. Again, doing so was easy and highly profitable.
Prohibition benefitted numerous people. There were so many legal cases for Prohibition law violations that they backlogged courts. So courts hired more judges. Lawyers made money both to prosecute and to defend those charged with violating Prohibition. Clerks and others made overtime pay.
People could legally buy liquor with a doctor’s prescription. So they quickly developed numerous maladies for which whiskey was the cure. Doctors made the equivalent of over a half billion dollars per year by writing prescriptions for medicinal liquor.
The volume of alcohol sold this way was enormous. Prohibitionists were not happy. They proposed legislation to restrict this gaping loophole. But the American Medical Association vigorously opposed the measure. It would be ‘interference with medical practice’ and the doctor-patient relationship. More important, it would reduce this easy income.
There were many beneficiaries of Prohibition. For example, Prohibition quickly led to a 700% increase in grape acreage in California. People suddenly began demanding grapes. Not to eat. But for use in homemade wine.
Seattle police sergeant Roy Olmstead lost his job for moonlighting as a bootlegger. He then entered the bootlegging business full-time. He quickly became one of Puget Sound’s largest employers. On his payroll were drivers, dispatchers, warehouse workers, mechanics and rum running crews. Therer were salespeople, collectors, secretaries, bookkeepers, accountants, and lawyers. Olmstead chartered a fleet of boats and operated a fleet of cars and trucks.
The production, distribution and sale of alcohol had been one-eighth of the entire U.S. economy. Prohibition destroyed this important sector. In doing so, it wiped out many legal jobs. For example, in 1916 there were 1,300 legal breweries. Ten years later, there were none. But Prohibition also led to the creation of many jobs. And many fortunes. Upon Repeal, many organized criminals invested their profits in Las Vegas. That sleepy town has boomed ever since.
Did Prohibition work economically? Did its benefits outweigh its costs. That’s for you to decide.
III. Did Prohibition Work in Improving Health?
Did Prohibition lead to health benefits? Some argue that it reduced the consumption of alcohol. It’s difficult to know for sure. That’s because official records don’t exist. Tax receipts were non-existent on moonshine. Perhaps it did reduce drinking.
Many people obeyed the law and chose not to drink. Their risk of heart disease and stroke was much higher as a result. Drinking in moderation would have cut their risk by nearly half.
Prohibition clearly led to a common pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely beer. The pattern of infrequent but heavy drinking is harmful to both health and safety. It’s binge drinking.
Prohibition “led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition.”2
Alcoholics who wanted alcohol could easily get it if they had the money. The downside was that Prohibition led to the closure of all facilities for inebriates. Thus, they had nowhere to get treatment.
Did Prohibition work to improve health? That’s for you to decide.
IV. On Balance, Did Prohibition Work?
Remember. There are always two sides to an issue. What were the effects of Prohibition. Did the positive effects outweigh the negative effects? Again, that’s for you to decide.
IV. The Future
Almost one in five Americans today supports making it illegal to drink alcohol. Not even National Prohibition made it illegal for anyone to drink. For example, those who had stockpiled alcohol could drink it legally in private. In addition to the millions who support prohibiting alcohol, many millions more support neo-prohibitionism.
An historian of alcohol has made an important observation. ‘From a historical perspective, no prediction is certain, and no path is forever barred’”not even the return of alcohol prohibition in some form.’3
Only time will tell.
V. Resources – Did Prohibition Work? (Pros & Cons)
Benefits of National Prohibition. Prohibition Party.
Blocker, J. Did Prohibition Really Work? Am J Pub Health, 2006, 9.
Burnham, J. New perspectives on the prohibition ‘experiment’ of the 1920’s. J Soc Hist, 1968, 2(1), 51-68.
Coffey, W. Why Prohibition failed. WalterCoffey.com. August 24, 2012.
Did Prohibition Reduce Drinking? Priceonomics, Dec 5, 2013.
Just Think Twice. DEA site. Asserted that “Prohibition did work.” Response by J. Sullum in Prohibition Was Not an Awful Flop.
Miron, J., and Zwiebel, J. Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition. NBER Working Paper No. 3675. Washington: NBER, 1991.
Moore, M. Actually, Prohibition Was a Success. New York Times, Oct 16, 1989.
Powers, E., and Wilson, J. Access denied. The relationship between alcohol prohibition and driving under the influence. Sociol Inq, 2004, 74(3), 318’“337.
Prohibition: Not Repeatable, But Not a Failure. Phoenix House, Oct 11, 2011.
Sabet, K. Prohibition’s real lessons for drug policy.
Despite the ‘failure’ of Prohibition, there’s little reason to believe that the benefits of drug legalization would outweigh its costs. Los Angeles Times, Oct 5, 2011.
Tyrrell, I. The US Prohibition experiment: myths, history and implications. Addict., 1997, 92, 1405-1409.
Yes, Prohibition worked – In terms of reducing alcohol consumption. Patterico.com, July 28, 2014.
Wickersham Commission, Benefits of Prohibition. Ch. VII. Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws, 1931.
- Einstein, A. The World as I See It. NY: Philo Library, 1949.
- Thornton, M. Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Pol. Analysis No. 157. Washington: Cato, 1991.
- Blocker, J. Did Prohibition Really Work? Am J Pub Health, 2006, 96(2), 233’“243.