Dunn: The Law of Unintended Consequences

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Linda Dunn

Ninety years ago we fixed what many Americans had come to believe was a mistake when we ratified the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th Amendment.

Prior to the 18th Amendment, many blamed the ills of society upon drinking.

The many organizations and individuals who promoted prohibition and pushed the amendment were certain in their belief that the 18th Amendment, which made the “production, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors illegal” would “…reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America…”

Instead, we got a rise in organized crime associated with the illegal production and sale of alcohol, an increase in smuggling, and a decline in tax revenue.

Rather than emptying our prisons and poorhouses, it filled them. Instead of reducing the consumption of “intoxicating liquors,” America’s consumption rose and unregulated and illegal liquor made drinking more dangerous, with about 50,000 Americans dying from alcohol-related poisonings before this amendment was repealed.

Many — if not most — Prohibitionists had expected hard liquors such as whiskey to be banned while wine and beer — not being considered “intoxicating liquor” by many advocates — would be exempt. At the very least, they expected local control.

Instead, the extremist Volstead Act — passed after Congress voted to override President Wilson’s veto — imposed what many of us now call a “nanny state,” but one that was so poorly policed that violations of the law were common. Graft and corruption then paved the way for Al Capone to make about $60 million yearly in defiance of the law.

And it wasn’t just the Al Capone types who violated the law. It seemed for a time that everyone who owned a bathtub was brewing “bathtub gin” and everyone with any means of transportation was distributing it.

[Fun fact 1: Bathtub Gin was not actually made in a bathtub. Homemade liquor had to be watered down and bottles were too tall to fit under the spigot in the kitchen so many moonshiners used the bathtub spigot instead.]

[Fun fact 2: My father, who was a local child in that era, used to tell stories about riding in the milk truck with a cousin who delivered more than just milk to residences.]

Corruption of public officials was rampant and some drinkers, forced to deal with criminals to obtain alcoholic beverages, switched from alcohol to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine and other substances that probably would not have become as deeply entrenched in our society had it not been for Prohibition.

Instead of solving social ills, prohibition worsened them.

According to a study of 30 major U.S. cities, the number of crimes increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921 and the initial response of supporters was the one still practiced today: Denial. Supporters blamed “media hype” and offered their own proof that the amendment was successful.

Dr. Fabian Franklin, for example, proclaimed that crime had decreased 37.7 percent between 1910 and 1923. Unfortunately, this was because less serious crime had decreased while more serious crimes rose sharply. Robbery alone rose 83.3 percent between 1910 and 1923.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the trend reversed and continued to decline through the early 1940s.

The two biggest lessons we should have learned from that experiment appear obvious in hindsight.

First, society can no more be successfully engineered in the United States than in the Soviet Union. Humans are stubborn and creative and we will resist and find ways of subverting attempts to control us even and perhaps especially if it’s “for our own good.”

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly for us citizens to remember is this: attempting to impose “morality measures” through legislation increases government control over the average citizen’s life regardless of the original intent or the party affiliation of those pushing any particular “solution.”

Prohibition was repealed December 5, 1933. A few states continued to prohibit alcohol but all had abandoned the ban by 1966.

Today, federal law makes it legal to drink beer and wine made at home for personal and family use only. Control of licensing and regulating alcoholic beverages is now a matter of state laws. Local regulations also restrict where, when and how alcohol can be sold.

The repeal didn’t reverse the Depression as many had hoped but revenue from alcohol and other excise taxes brought in $1.35 billion the first year, accounting for almost half the federal government’s total revenue in 1934.

It had taken 13 years of Prohibition for Americans to have enough of its “noble experiment” of legislating morality through banning anything to do with alcoholic beverages and to — for the first and only time — repeal an amendment to the Constitution.

And yet we don’t seem to have learned the basic lesson that we should have taken away from this: “Morality laws” encoded into criminal codes do not prevent “immoral behavior.” It just drives it into the shadows.

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.