We have the worst of both worlds: a Prohibitionary State that gives license to all kinds of evil, but that regulates and restricts actions that are not evil, to manage the chaos that results from the license.
In October, 1919, a heavily “progressive” Congress passed the Volstead Act enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting, for almost all purposes, the production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. There are two things everybody has learned from Prohibition. First, it is wrong to try to legislate morality. Second, you cannot
do it, for Prohibition failed. But neither of these things is true, and the real lessons of Prohibition go unheeded.
First, law is nothing if not the codification of morality. All laws bear some relation, however distant, to a moral evaluation of good and bad. We cannot escape making moral distinctions. One man’s theft is another man’s redistribution of income. One man’s defense of family honor is another man’s murder. Even people who reduce law to utilitarian calculations cannot evade this truth. They may say, “It is useful
to refrain from stealing, because then everyone’s goods will be secure,” appealing to self-interest. But why should security be prized higher than the thrill of danger? And how can mere usefulness bind my conscience? A man may fight to the death for justice, and to hell with utility.
Second, if Prohibition was intended to curtail hard drinking, it did work. It’s always easier to look at something that happened than to imagine what would have happened but didn’t. Most people obeyed the law. Of course there were speakeasies and bootleggers. The Kennedy family made their fortune on illegal whiskey. But there wasn’t a speakeasy on every street or a still in every backyard. Actuarial tables show that, shortly after Prohibition began, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver dropped considerably, and continued to drop through the twenties, leveling off by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
After all, Prohibition did enjoy some wide support. Billy Sunday, baseball player and itinerant preacher, campaigned for it. Even Irish Catholics were not uniformly in opposition. I recall a photograph of a parade held in my coal-mining town in 1918, to celebrate the armistice. Prominent were the Knights of Father Mathew, an Irish temperance society.
So, then, what does Prohibition teach us?
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