We all know the story.
Maybe we heard it in our high school history class.
Maybe we went through a libertarian phase where it was repeated ad nauseam as an argument for legalizing marijuana, cocaine, meth, and other hardcore substances—even if you dislike the substances themselves and would rather see them disappear from the face of the Earth.
Maybe we even repeated it ourselves!
As the argument goes, no matter how much you might like to see these substances disappear from society, prohibition simply doesn’t work—and we know this because, you see, we tried it already with alcohol. After a few years we had to stop the experiment, because it didn’t stop people from consuming alcohol. The only thing it did was cause people to blind themselves from bootlegging it poorly, and fuel crime by giving the mafia the opportunity to seize the black market in production and distribution. The message implicit in the very story itself is, of course, that that’s all we’re doing by prohibiting any drugs now: making consumption of those drugs more harmful for those who consume them, without reducing the total amount of consumption at all; and fueling black market crime.
Well, you’re reading an Aedon Cassiel article, so you probably know what you’re in for already. Isn’t this how it always seems to go with this kind of thing? The standard narrative we’ve been given is wrong. Alcohol prohibition was, in fact, successful. It most certainly was not responsible for an overall increase in crime. And the reason the experimented ended is not because it had failed!
In the February 2006 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, we can read the true story:
Death rates from cirrhosis and alcoholism, alcoholic psychosis hospital admissions, and drunkenness arrests all declined steeply during the latter years of the 1910s, when both the cultural and the legal climate were increasingly inhospitable to drink, and in the early years after National Prohibition went into effect. They rose after that, but generally did not reach the peaks recorded during the period 1900 to 1915.
Cirrhosis death rates, which were at almost 30 per 100,000 in 1911, fell to just under 11 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcohol-related psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. If the goal of prohibition was to reduce the ills associated with excess alcohol consumption, then it most certainly did in fact succeed at that aim.
The effect that Prohibition had on American culture even had benefits after Prohibition ended.
After Repeal, when tax data permit better-founded consumption estimates than we have for the Prohibition Era, per capita annual consumption stood at 1.2 US gallons (4.5 liters), less than half the level of the pre-Prohibition period. . . . Beer consumption dropped precipitously. Distilled spirits made a dramatic comeback in American drinking patterns, reversing a three-quarters-of-a-century decline, although in volume spirits did not reach its pre-Prohibition level.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that alcohol consumption finally reached back to its pre-Prohibition levels.
So what about crime? According to the University of Pennsylvania Department of Criminology’s Associate Professor Emily G. Owens, increases in racial diversity and urban concentration were the real reason for rises in violent crime over the years of Prohibition: “Americans, especially black Southerners, were moving into cities at the same time as immigrants from Europe and China.” The increase, in fact, occurred predominantly in the African-American community—and African-Americans at that time were not the people responsible for alcohol trafficking. Furthermore, any increases in death were entirely concentrated to individuals in their 20s—deaths unequivocally fell for those 30 and older. Crime rose because of urban yoots, not because of prohibition. Or as Owens puts it, the “relative increase was largest” in “urban states with large foreign-born populations.”
Owens points out that national prohibition didn’t introduce any sudden or drastic change: by the time the federal government got involved in prohibition, it was already illegal to sell alcohol in a full 32 states—and it remained illegal in many states even after repeal; Mississippi did not legalize alcohol until 1966. What this means is we can actually track the effect of prohibition on crime rates by looking at the states individually, one-by-one. When we do that, we find that “depending on the model, the actual effect of going dry ranges from a 5 percent increase to a 13 percent decrease in state homicide rates, with margins of error of 4 percentage points.”
But again, even these broad national numbers conceal the pattern which is evident in who dies. Even models that show an overall increase in crime still show that prohibition made life safer for children and mature adults, whereas any conceivable increase took place solely in young adults—and once again, even this increase is predominantly found only “in states with large immigrant and urban populations.”
To put it plainly, a child who dies from a beating given by an alcoholic parent, or a person innocently walking on the sidewalk who is hit by a drunk driver, is not equivalent to someone killed in a shoot-out during a drug deal gone awry. Prohibition may not have prevented all people from exposing themselves to heightened risk through their own choices, but it very, very probably lowered violent crime overall—and it most certainly lowered it for everyone younger or older than their 20s.
So why did Prohibition come to an end?
[H]istorians are fond of invoking widespread cultural change to explain the failure of National Prohibition. Decaying Victorian social mores allowed the normalization of drinking, which was given a significant boost by the cultural trendsetters of the Jazz Age. In such an atmosphere, Prohibition could not survive. But it did. At the height of the Jazz Age, American voters in a hard-fought contest elected a staunch upholder of Prohibition in Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, an avowed foe of the Eighteenth Amendment. Repeal took place, not in the free-flowing good times of the Jazz Age, but rather in the austere gloom 4 years into America’s worst economic depression.
Thus, the arguments for Repeal that seemed to have greatest resonance with voters in 1932 and 1933 centered not on indulgence but on economic recovery. Repeal, it was argued, would replace the tax revenues foregone under Prohibition, thereby allowing governments to provide relief to suffering families. It would put unemployed workers back to work. . . . it was not the stringent nature of National Prohibition, which set a goal that was probably impossible to reach and that thereby foredoomed enforcement, that played the leading role in discrediting alcohol prohibition [but] instead, an abrupt and radical shift in context [e.g. the Great Depression] . . .”
Prohibition did not end because it was a failure. It didn’t even end because the general population came to believe it had been a failure. It actually ended because people became desperate for work, and the alcohol industry was seen as a way to provide jobs. And the question of whether or not the alcohol industry does create jobs will be addressed even further below.
So what lessons should we learn from prohibition?
Currently, the CDC links alcohol to 88,000 deaths every single year in the United States, making it the third leading cause of preventable death after smoking and the combination of junk food and lack of exercise.
This adds up to 2.5 million years of potential life lost, which in turns means 2.5 million years of work that never gets done. The economic costs associated with this are estimated at $249 billion dollars. And that’s only counting the loss of productivity caused by death from alcohol—not all loss caused by alcohol in general, such as that owed to exacerbated symptoms of depression and anxiety caused by moderate alcohol consumption.
Nor does any of this include deaths due to alcohol-fueled violence, car crashes, or other problems.
Altogether, 40% of crimes for which we have convictions involve alcohol consumption. This number rises to 60% in cases of sexual abuse, 70% in cases of child abuse, and 86% in cases of murder.
If anything, we can now make a serious case that the repeal of prohibition has been an abject, disastrous failure resulting in wildly inflated rates of violence.
According to a National Institute of Health survey from 2016, a whopping 28% of the American adult public drink at heavy or at-risk levels—defined as more than 4 drinks on any given day, or more than 14 drinks in any given week. That’s 43% of all people who ever drink at all.
According to another nation-wide survey, whites are more likely to fall into each category of severity of alcohol use disorder (AUD) than blacks, Asians, or Hispanics, and less than 20% of people with lifetime AUD ever get treatment.
Furthermore, in men, alcohol lowers testosterone and raises estrogen: “In a four-week study, normal, healthy men who consumed 220 grams (7.7 oz) of alcohol daily saw their testosterone levels decline significantly after only five days — and continue to drop throughout the whole period of the study.”
And also raises activity of the enzyme responsible for converting androgens into estrogen: “Increased aromatization may be a mechanism for feminization of [male drinkers] . . . Over the long term, the oxidative stress of drinking also causes erectile dysfunction.”
In short: alcohol causes beer guts, bitch tits, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, and depression. It also plays a massive role in sexual degeneracy, sexual assault, child abuse, and a vast majority of all murders. And it has these effects on whites much more than it does on blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.
Obviously, we shouldn’t be raiding people’s homes on the suspicion that they might be brewing alcohol inside. We could, however, easily ban the industrial scale production and sale of alcohol without requiring draconian enforcement in order to reap tremendous social gains from doing so.
A further benefit of requiring that alcohol can only be produced domestically for domestic use is that for the most part, only those households which are stable enough to afford to keep domestic production going will have access to alcohol. As a tendency, this would help ensure that only those who are responsible enough to use alcohol would be capable of consuming it—without requiring anyone to decide on a case-by-case basis who is responsible enough. This would be inherently self-enforcing.
It may be politically unfeasible to re-implement a full-scale ban on commercial alcohol production overnight. But a 2010 review of the evidence shows why we wouldn’t need to in order to start reaping gains from treating alcohol like the serious and harmful drug that it is:
Nearly all studies, including those with different study designs, found that there was an inverse relationship between the tax or price of alcohol and indices of excessive drinking or alcohol-related health outcomes. Among studies restricted to underage populations, most found that increased taxes were also significantly associated with reduced consumption and alcohol-related harms.
Another 2010 review finds that: “doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
And as far as those Depression-era concerns about jobs go, modern research (here’s one study, and here’s another) finds that the spending shift away from alcohol towards other goods in fact usually lead to more jobs. As Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD, distinguished professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago put it: “Money not spent on alcohol coupled with the newly raised tax revenues will be spent on other goods and services which will create jobs in non-alcohol sectors, offsetting any losses experienced in alcohol sectors.”
Think of this article as entry #2, after my last article about Murray Rothbard’s “non-aggression principle,” about why I am no longer a libertarian. The libertarian story of prohibition is, as a historical matter, just simply false — and there are in fact some taxes which should actually be implemented not just to raise revenue but because they would be socially beneficial in their own right.
Libertarians tried to tell me that I should read about Prohibition, because the things I would learn would convince me to want to legalize cocaine, meth, and other hard drugs as well. But their reading of Prohibition was based on myths and lies. I have these myths and lies to thank, however, for the fact that they inspired me to investigate the real story of prohibition for myself.
The libertarians wanted to convince me to support legalizing the industrial sale of drugs like heroin—instead, they helped me realize why it actually would be an amazingly good thing for society as a whole if we could keep meth and heroin illegal, and go back to prohibiting the industrial sale of alcohol too.
To repeat, this article is not calling for a full-scale “Puritanical” attitude towards alcohol. I would not prohibit personal consumption, or even small-scale local production of alcohol (and neither did historical Prohibition).
People should be free to brew their own alcohol. They should be allowed to bring their homebrewed alcohol to private events. This allows responsible consumption of alcohol, but by design does not allow anyone the option to run their life into the ground with alcoholism, because as soon as you start to do that, you can’t afford to keep brewing.
However, there is a very real dilemma here with how to handle the “double standards” argument. If alcohol is legally produced by corporations, why not weed? Why not LSD? Why not ecstasy?
These substances are less harmful than alcohol — usually at the individual level, and most definitely at the societal level, which is the level that matters most when deciding drug policy.
So if you oppose legal corporate production of drugs like LSD and ecstasy and you support the alcohol industry, the legalizers will call you a hypocrite — and they’ll be right. As documented in this essay, legalized corporate production of alcohol has been more destructive than legalization of weed or LSD would ever be. No matter what judicial stance we take towards weed or LSD, no study will ever find that weed is a factor in 84% of all murders or that LSD is a factor in 70% of all cases of child abuse.
My stance towards all of these substances is this:
1. Individual consumption should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Whether we’re talking about alcohol or LSD, there are at least some people who can consume responsibly with little or no ill effects. Nobody should be knocking on anyone’s doors or breaking in their homes in no-knock raids to check their fridges and closets or cars if they aren’t otherwise causing trouble.
But absent no-knock raids or warrant-free car searches, if you’re even capable of being arrested with any of these substances in the first place it probably is because you were doing something to justify your arrest, even if only scaring people while being publicly intoxicated with more alcohol or LSD than you could handle. If you can’t handle a substance well enough to know your own limits, then you aren’t responsible enough to consume it.
2. Legal industries devoted to the mass production and sale of any of these substances are absolutely bad news for society as a whole. And we are all better off as a rule when we reduce the availability of drugs in society in general.
This is a position that holds consistent to core principles regardless of what my personal biases about any given substance are.
The only other position that holds the same consistency is the far-left or radical libertarian option of simply legalizing everything.
And unless you take an equally consistent position that strikes at the root of their false historical narrative that begins in Prohibition, the drug pushers will exploit your hypocrisy for propogandic effect — and they will win.