Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cost of Prohibition


“The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent.”
Evangelist Billy Sunday, 1920

Acceptance of Prohibition was mixed from the beginning. Some states openly opposed it right off the start, claiming it encroached on State’s rights, others simply because it would cost too much to enforce.

In the end, 18 states appropriated money to enforce Prohibition. Indiana, Vermont, New York put enforcement in place but repealed it in 1923. Maryland never enacted any laws. Connecticut and Rhode Island never ratified Prohibition. In contrast rural South and West support for prohibition was strong.

Prohibition was one of the most significant social reforms of the early twentieth century—it showed the ambivalence of Progressivism in the way it blended moral reform and the search for efficiency through what they thought was a rational business-dominated organization of society. An alcohol-free society would have better employees, less social problems caused by alcohol, and less welfare problems.

The prohibition movement was a part of the huge cultural split in 1920s America that also involved the separate issues of the Ku Klux Klan and the campaign against evolution, as seen in the Scopes trial (1925). Cosmopolitan Americans and intellectuals looked down on rural and small town people who supported prohibition and those who were anti-evolution. A cultural divide divided American society in a way not too dissimilar to that over issues such as abortion and other Christian right crusades of the 1990s and after. It's possible the roots of the current cultural divisions can be traced from these 1920s sources, of which the dispute over prohibition was an important part.

Prohibition was going to reduce crime and corruption, improve health, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden of prisons and poorhouses.

Seized alcohol was often distributed to law enforcement. Occasionally a public show of destroying a few barrels of whiskey would be made in front of reporters and newsreel cameramen. But most of it ended up on someone’s table or speakeasy. Awareness of this only increased the growing contempt average people had for both the law and the people put in charge of enforcing it.

Between 1500 and 2500 federal field agents – mostly untrained – and 1500 office personnel were put on the job of fighting law breakers. In 1920 the Coast Guard had 26 inshore boats, converted tug boats and 29 cruising cutters. The boats were old and the Coast Guard was held in low esteem. It wasn't until the last years of Prohibition that money was funneled to stopping the flood of illegal booze.

Then the Great Depression took place. Unemployment soared. People began recalling the days that the government used to get huge amounts of money through taxes on liquor. Now the government was spending money trying to enforce unenforceable laws while all the money spent on buying alcohol by the people was going into the pockets of gangsters.

Progressives often supported prohibitions and saw it as improving society by controlling moral behavior through laws. They sincerely believe they can save us from ourselves.

In 1919, a year before Prohibition went into effect, Cleveland had 1,200 legal bars. By 1923, the city had an estimated 3,000 illegal speakeasies, along with 10,000 stills. An estimated 30,000 city residents sold liquor during Prohibition, and another 100,000 made home brew or bathtub gin for themselves and friends. In New York it ranged from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies.

The fact that cirrhosis was substantially lower on average during Prohibition than before or after might suggest that Prohibition played a substantial role in reducing cirrhosis, but further examination suggests this conclusion is premature. First, there have been substantial fluctuations in cirrhosis outside the Prohibition period, indicating that other factors are important determinants and must be accounted for in analyzing whether Prohibition caused the low level of cirrhosis during Prohibition. Second, there is no obvious jump in cirrhosis upon repeal. This fact does not prove that Prohibition had no effect, since the lags between consumption and cirrhosis mean the effect of increased consumption might not have shown up immediately. Nevertheless, the behavior of cirrhosis after repeal fails to suggest a large positive effect of Prohibition. Third, cirrhosis began declining from its pre-1920 peak by as early as 1908, and it had already attained its lowest level over the sample in 1920, the year in which constitutional Federal Prohibition took effect.

Between 1916 and 1928, the price of whiskey in most places rose by an average of 520 percent.

Token raids on speakeasies by federal agents usually encouraged colorful newspaper stories rather than respect for federal law. In fact, after 1925, more and more citizens seemed to resent the cynicism with which the federal government (whose Founding Fathers had left murders, lynchings, adulteries, and other moral transgressions to the disciplines of the state legislatures) was so inconsistently pursuing an intrusive interest in whatever it was they might be tempted to drink.

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