A Rational Argument Against Prohibition

Prohibition-Era-Cocktail-RecipesIt might come as a surprise to most modern Americans that there are those among our population that wish to return to the days of Prohibition in America. These teetotalers organizing against impossible odds to outlaw all alcohol call themselves Neo-prohibitionists. These people take a principled stand against imbibing alcohol in any form.

They are so fervent in their beliefs in the ills of alcohol that Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, quit her own organization in protest of the neo-prohibitionist stance the organization had come to adopt stating, “I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

India is currently experiencing a severe problem with alcohol addiction and the government has been toying with the idea of prohibition as a way to discourage alcoholism in their country. In 2011 they raised the legal drinking age from 21 years of age to 25 citing a desire to help prevent alcoholism.

In September of 2011 Imran Khan challenged the ruling to raise the drinking age. In August of 2013 the Indian version of Forbes magazine allowed him a place to voice his rationale for defying a law that seems to be in place to help a social ill. His response was perhaps the greatest discussion in misplaced good intentions I have read.

He writes:

“The intention of alcohol de-addiction is sound—alcohol is dangerous; I’ve lost friends to drunk driving and had family members struggle with alcohol addiction—but the method that they were choosing was incorrect. What they were doing is taking away people’s right to choose.

The parallel that I was drawing, just as an ordinary citizen, was this: If I choose to start protecting women from being raped—which is a huge problem we have—I cannot tell women how to dress in order to protect them. My intention may be correct. But we need to make things safer for women, not tell them to cover up. If we have a population problem, we cannot tell our citizens how many children to have or start sterilizing people, no matter how good the end result may be.

In a democracy, if you feel that alcohol is bad, in the way that drugs like heroin and cocaine are bad, then ban it. But when you allow alcohol—and tax it heavily—and then say, You’re 18, you can marry, have children, enter a legal contract, go to war to protect your country, be sentenced to death for a crime, but you can’t handle a drink, then it’s ludicrous.”

I think his point, while using a very imperfect metaphor, is that there are always easy solutions to difficult problems if you don’t care about results. The easy solution to alcohol abuse or addiction is to criminalize the behavior of drinking. It is an easy thing to do legislatively and it looks really great politically. The problem of course is that such a thing is impossible to enforce and history has shown that prohibition doesn’t stop drinking.

Imran shows his historical knowledge when he continues:

Historically, that has never worked. Prohibition leads to an increase in risky alcohol consumption; instead of sitting down casually and having a beer, you sneak into a back alley, buy a quart of rum, knock it back and run home. That is risky drinking behaviour and does not lead to a decrease in alcohol consumption. Instead you create a new class of criminals, bootleggers, and they—and their customers—will now be tempted to slip the police a bribe if they are caught. What have we achieved? We’ve lost revenue, increased risky drinking behaviour, increased corruption and increased criminality.

This is exactly what happened in the United States. While overall alcohol consumption decreased there was a huge boon in risky drinking behavior and a new breed of organized crime that was to that point unseen in America. While pub culture was gone in America it was replaced by the gangster and an era of criminality in cities like Chicago that still feels the effects today.

Imran sums up with a plea to understand Democracy: “People forget that in a democracy, you have to take the bad with the good and government has to be ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’.”

I find it highly unlikely that America will see a return to prohibition any time in our near future. The grand experiment on temperance ended in absolute defeat. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are problems in America though and should not be ignored. I just ask that advocates on all sides of a problem, on all sides of the political spectrum look for solutions that are effective rather than simple.

Real solutions to hard problems are never easy and they rarely score political points. When addressing issues that plague and pain our society I hope that we discuss options that benefit those who are coping with addition rather than simply/easily outlawing their behavior.

Freedom has a cost and that cost is not what politicians claim when speaking in front of cameras. Part of that cost is to deal with the consequences of people’s free choices whether they be good, bad, or awful.

Prohibition is rarely a solution so lets change the conversation to more practical realms.