Saturday, September 1, 2018

Who Says Prohibiton Was a Failure?

After a friend told me about the concept that ending prohibition wasn't just a case of the country going belly-up to the bar, I talked it over with my mother.

She told me prohibition was less a failed experiment than a sabotaged experiment. It failed because we, as a country, didn't let it succeed.

Over the course of several years, she helped me identify several groups that actively worked against it.

For a little background, we need to be aware that prohibition did not begin with the 18th amendment. War-time law during the war we call the first world war had the country diverting resources to the war effort that would otherwise have been going to the production and use of drinking alcohol.

The temperance movement used that as an opportunity to discuss a public ban on intoxicating beverages, and the general mood of the country was that of wanting release from the social ills of drinking, and the amendment passed, continuing the bans. And it worked for a couple of years before things came off the rails. The health problems and other moral problems associated with consuming alcohol were, in fact, reduced.

And then, according to the common wisdom, the country fell off the wagon. It was just too hard!

At least that's what people say.

Of course, that's not what really happened. Initially, the laws were not all that strict. The emphasis being on resources, not on moral issues, individual manufacture for private use was mostly ignored.

Did things get stricter with the passage of the 18th amendment? Not really. The amendment did not mandate punishment or define the degree of the crime in any particular case, just gave the state and national legislatures explicitly Constitutional basis for establishing criminality and punishment in a political environment that was not forgiving of such laws.

Essentially, the amendment provided the excuse for letting the war-time laws carry over after the war.

We have to understand that the experiment was not just the question of intoxication and intoxicants, but included the question of government regulation of such things.

Most of the members of the temperance movement weren't thinking about regulation, they were thinking about countering the influence of social pressure to get intoxicated. But politicians were thinking about regulation, because politicians generally find it extremely difficult to do anything about something without regulating it.

Up until the 18th amendment, beverage alcohol was considered a staple -- an essential material for ordinary life. And in many prominent social circles it was considered downright antisocial to refuse an offer of a drink. It would be kind of like refusing to shake hands in our time.

The members of the temperance movement were looking for something really strong to counter the social pressure to drink for people who didn't really care to get high, but didn't feel that refusing was an option in their world.

Initial laws were not strict about private production for personal use for several reasons, not the least of which was simply that candy making and preserving fruits involve similar processes and sometimes ended up with beverage grade alcohol as an intermediate product or by-product. Preventing or punishing individual-level production was considered effectively impossible, and rightly so.

Even after the amendment passed, punishment was focused on volume production and distribution.

Now circular logic is bad argument, but cyclic causality is a feedback loop. So my choice of which group to start with is arbitrary. But I think it will be easier to start with the moonshiners, the people who made bad liquor to fill some apparent need they saw, and the people who disributed it.

Why would they make and distribute bad liquor?

Why not? is the argument they would use.

People who wanted liquor, but didn't want to go to the trouble of making their own in secret, would get themselves in such a desparate state they would take anything, even bad liquor.

And bad liquor was cheaper to make, and easier to make in secret, than good liquor. Higher profits, in the short-sighted point of view.

Now, bad liquor doesn't just taste bad. It can make people sick, often permanently sick. It destroys internal organs much more quickly than alcoholic beverages properly made. It can make people lose their eyesight, and it can kill.

So when people started dying and going blind, bad liquor gave power mongers the excuse they thought they needed to tell everyone it was time to start cracking down -- that it would be impossible to get the desired effects of prohibition without causing people to die from bad liquor, unless they made the laws fair and strict against all production and use. ("Fair" in some sense of the word, we guess.)

Huge leaps of logic, there. Quite incorrect, as well.

Drastic social change never comes free. Part of the cost is lost jobs, lost health, and even lost lives, as the changes cause what people do every day to change. So you have to balance those costs against the cost of continuing in the status quo, and against the cost/possibility of more gradual change.

Every option has people getting sick, and becoming unable to work, and dying. Maybe you could ask which is less costly, but the real question is something more than these costs: which course is going to encourage people to take responsibility for their own actions when there is large-scale social pressure not to?

Do you know what a power monger is? These are the kind of people who not only quite satisfied to decide that they know more about what you should be doing than you do, but are quite happy to try to force you to do what they think you should do. Not just persuade, to force. Make laws. Call in the cops. Start rumors so you lose your friends, your customers, your wages, and entire means of making a living.

And when these people are politicians, they claim that in doing so they have done things. And they use the fact that they have done these things as an excuse to claim that they have done their job. And that they should be re-elected, re-appointed, and stay in their positions of power.

Now many officers have mixed feelings about laws becoming more strict. And they should. Stricter laws may give them more tools to go after the bad guys, but it also gives them more work to do -- deskwork that isn't going after the bad guys. They often get so busy dealing with how the stricter laws impact ordinary people that they don't have time to actually use those tools to try to enforce good behavior from real bad guys.

Maybe good people shouldn't be impacted by the stricter laws. But the police end up with more things to check when the laws get stricter. So they are impacted. And when the police are impacted, everyone else is impacted.

What? Regulations have a cost?

Yes. They do.

Some police, faced with enforcing more regulations than they have resources to enforce, cut corners. They leave their friends alone and focus on their political and social rivals when they go out to enforce regulations. Excessive regulation becomes their excuse to become corrupted.

Members of organized crime see this happen and take the opportunities to apply their usual pressures -- bribes and blackmail and maybe even inducements of other sorts -- for the privilege of being ignored. And the privilege of being involved with production and distribution. For privilege, they sell protection. But you already knew about that, so we don't need to go over that again.

Did the members of the temperance movement want the moonshine to happen? Did they want organized crime to get involved?

There may have been exceptions, power mongers among them, but for the most part, no.

Could the 18th amendment have been worded differently, in a way that would not have left the door open for abuses of power and involvement of organized crime?

Let's have a try at it.

Alternate history version of 18th Amendment.

Section 1

The social ills which are derived from the production, transportation, sale, and consumption of intoxicating liquors having become known, and the delays in considering such questions for the common welfare of the citizens of the United States, it is resolved to recognize that the questions of large-scale production, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors for beverage use are within the purvue of the Constitutional authority of Congress and of the legislatures of the several states.

And that's it. Improtation and exportation between states becomes covered, because the States already have the authority to make laws for the common welfare.

How does this differ from what the 18th Amendment provides?

The meaning we, in our modern frame, get from this alternate history version is, as I understand it, what the members of the temperance movement were seeking, and what many thought they thought they were getting.

Many others used the 18th Amendment for other purposes.

How, you ask, does this leave us with a different result from the wording of the 21st Amendment?

Both amendments are on line. Read them carefully. Then read the alternate history version above. I think you'll see that I'm talking about.

(There's an engineering principle: It's always best to try to avoid fixing things that ain't broke, even when they ain't ideal.

And another engineering principle: It's best to keep the centralized control functionality away from individual functions at the local level, as much as possible. If it's at all possible to adequately handle things at the most local level, that's where they should be handled. There are exceptions, but as soon as the exceptional cases have been handled reasonably well, the central control functions should return control to the local functions.

Getting the central control functions involved greatly increases the possibility and the negative impact of bugs and other errors.)

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