Only America’s oldest citizens remember one of our nation’s great follies, alcohol Prohibition, which ended 70 years ago this month.
The Noble Experiment, as it was called, was supposed to produce an increase in virtue and productivity as people shunned Demon Rum for work.
It didn’t work out that way. Instead, as reflected in such movies as “The Untouchables” (also a TV series), the country imbibed a crime wave as hoodlums organized into gangs that delivered a liquid most people still wanted and which had been a part of civilization since before history was recorded.
Nor did society enjoy the temperance promised by the Anti-Saloon League and other anti-booze organizations. Instead, speakeasies flourished and young folks — eager as ever to flout authority — made drunkenness a sign of supposed maturity.
This is relevant to us today because Prohibition revealed something about the American character. As Socrates advised, “Know thyself.” For us, that includes not only such positive traits as charity and “American know-how,” but the negative trait of sometimes lurching into moralistic campaigns.
It still seems amazing that the country would pass, in 1919, the 18th Amendment, under which alcohol “for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” It was repealed in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment.
To enforce Prohibition, in 1920 Congress passed the Volstead Act. It effectively repealed much of the Bill of Rights (the First to the 10th Amendments) to enforce the 18th Amendment.
One cannot help but make comparisons to today’s war on drugs, which has almost doubled the country’s population of nonviolent prison inmates in the past two decades. The drug war also imposed asset-forfeiture laws by which the government seizes even innocent citizens’ property without a court order. And even sick people are denied the medicine they need, whether medical marijuana to help restore the appetite of someone on chemotherapy or adequate opioids for someone in extreme pain.
At least with alcohol Prohibition, a constitutional amendment was passed. With drug prohibition, a similar reign of overweening law enforcement has been imposed by legislative or police fiat.
Self-aware of our national temptations to puritanical “wars,” Americans should realize the right way to deal with such problems as drunkenness or drug abuse is to persuade people to live virtuously, not to arrest them and throw them in prison.
Prohibition, whether of booze in the 1920s or drugs today, is a prescription for tyranny.