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. People sometimes still argue about whether or not Prohibition worked.
II. Did Prohibition Work?
III. Did It Improve Health?
IV. On Balance, Did It Work?
V. The Future
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. And so on.
Also, 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 prison. More people benefit. The 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 hard 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 law to restrict this gaping loophole. But the American Medical Association opposed the law. It would be “interference with medical practice.” It disrupts the relationship between doctor and patient. More important, it would reduce this easy income.
There were many helped by Prohibition. For example, Prohibition quickly led to a 700% increase in grape acreage. People suddenly began wanting 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. Olmstead chartered a fleet of boats. Also he owned and operated a fleet of cars and trucks.
He quickly became one of Puget Sound’s largest employers. On his payroll were these and more.
- Warehouse workers
- Salespeople c
The alcohol industry 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 It Improve Health?
Did Prohibition lead to health benefits? Some argue that it reduced drinking. It’s difficult to know for sure. That’s because official records don’t exist. Tax receipts didn’t exist 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 drinking pattern. It was of less often but very heavy drinking. This pattern is harmful to both health and safety. It’s so-called binge drinking.
Prohibition “led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances. They would have been unlikely to encounter these 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. Tens of 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: Pros & Cons
- Blocker, J. Did Prohibition Really Work? Am J Pub Health.
- Burnham, J. New perspectives on the prohibition “experiment” of the 1920’s. J Soc Hist, 2(1), 51-68.
- Coffey, W. Why Prohibition failed. WalterCoffey.com.
- Did Prohibition Reduce Drinking? Priceonomics.
- 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. Working Paper No. 3675. Wash: NBER, 1991.
- Moore, M. Actually, Prohibition Was a Success. New York Times.
- Powers, E., and Wilson, J. Access denied. The relationship between alcohol prohibition and driving under the influence. Soc Inq, 74(3), 318-37.
- Prohibition: Not Repeatable, But Not a Failure. Huff Post.
- 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.
- Tyrrell, I. The US Prohibition experiment: myths, history and implications. Addict., 92, 1405-9.
- Yes, Prohibition worked – In terms of reducing alcohol consumption. Patterico.com.
- Wickersham Commission, Benefits of Prohibition. Ch. VII. Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws, 1931.