It was 75 years ago today that America’s incredibly stupid experiment in alcohol prohibition finally ended:
It did reduce overall consumption of alcohol in the U.S., but that reduction came largely among those who consumed alcohol responsibly. The actual harm caused by alcohol abuse was made worse, thanks to the economics of prohibitions.
Black market alcohol was of dubious origin, unregulated by market forces. The price premium that attaches to banned substances made the alcohol that made it to consumers more potent and more dangerous. And, of course, organized crime rose and flourished thanks to the new market created by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.
So hospitalizations related to alcohol soared. And so did violent crime. Corruption flourished, as law enforcement officials in charge of enforcing prohibition went on the take, from beat cops all the way up to the office of the United States Attorney General. Even the U.S. Senate had a secret, illegal stash of booze for its members and their staffs.
In 1924, the great social critic H.L. Mencken wrote of prohibition:
Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favourite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
When he first visited the United States in 1921, Albert Einstein wrote of America’s ban on booze: “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.”
As in many other things, Einstein was wise in this observation.
So, go out and celebrate the end of of a stupid experiment by having a drink on me !