The Prohibition Repeal Myth

Our historical understanding of the effect of Prohibition, and its later repeal, is more myth than fact, and that has given undue support to libertarian ideas of government.

Here is the story that most of us are familiar with: Prohibition made the consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Prohibition caused a black market to form that led to increases in violent crime without stopping people from drinking. So Prohibition was repealed, and the problem was solved. Some of us have even been told there’s a lesson to be learned from this history: the government should not try to prohibit things, it should not try to control the behavior of individuals, it should allow the free market to do its thing.

Students are asked questions about Prohibition like “Why did Prohibition lead to crime and violence? What is the relationship between Prohibition and individual rights, including property rights?” A common teaching tool is political cartoons showing outrage about the death of civil liberty and inability of the government to enforce Prohibition.

What is being taught in the hegemonic historical narrative of Prohibition and its repeal is not just events but ideology, specifically an ideology of regulation that I call Regulatory Cost Theory. The argument of Regulatory Cost Theory is simple — regulations should create more value than cost, specifically the cost of implementing the regulation and the cost of not implementing alternative regulations. So the ideological narrative is as follows: Prohibition was a regulation that was very costly to enforce and the alternative, allowing the consumption of alcohol, creates more value (taxes are often cited for this) for society than Prohibition does. Under Prohibition, the government had to constantly be chasing a black market run by violent criminals. Without Prohibition, legitimate institutions ran the production and distribution instead, putting an end to the violence.

Or at least, that is the story. But when we look at the evidence, that story is not nearly as clear cut as we have been led to believe.

The biggest myth of Prohibition is that it did not work, that the black market filled the vacuum and alcohol was just as harmful for society as it was when legal. But this is simply not true — by metrics of decreasing alcohol related deaths, Prohibition was very effective:

Age-adjusted death rates of liver cirrhosis by sex (death registration States, 1910–1932, and United States, 1933–2009)

There is a reason why Prohibition was fought for by a populist progressive movement. Alcohol was killing the people in the United States at a rate not seen since (there are a number of reasons for that beyond regulation that we will get to later). The drop with the implementation of Prohibition is literally the greatest decrease of alcohol-related death rates in human history. While there was not another drop of comparable magnitude, the death rate continued to decline until, you guessed it, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. While events such as war provided something of a counterbalance, the rate of deaths would continue to climb to the second-highest historical high in 1972. In short, Prohibition massively decreased alcohol-related deaths and repeal of Prohibition reversed that trend almost to a pre-Prohibition level.

So why did alcohol-related death rates not reach previous highs? The most morbid reason is that alcohol users started dying more often from vehicular-related deaths than from cirrhosis. By the mid-1970’s, alcohol was a factor in 60% of traffic fatalities. Additionally, advances in medicine like liver transplants (first successfully done in 1967) helped prevent cirrhosis-related deaths. Though this is stated with a big caveat — just because less people are dying does not mean that people who drink are in good health:

The second question is why cirrhosis deaths started to go down after going up for decades (note — it has started to go up again as of 2016). The answer, as with Prohibition, is regulation, including prohibition of alcohol for people under the age of 21 (implemented in some states in 1970’s and then nationwide in 1984). Notably, cirrhosis deaths have been lowest in states with stricter alcohol regulation, especially but not limited to state-monopolies on alcohol sales:

Mortality due to cirrhosis and liver cancer in the United States, 1999–2016: observational study, https://www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k2817
States with state-monopolies on alcohol sales: cyan is sales of liquor, MD has a mixed-system, PA has it for liquor and wine, and UT has it for all alcoholic beverages.

The point of this post is not to argue that full-on Prohibition should be brought back. Instead, the point is to show first and foremost how the metrics of “value” applied to measure a regulation’s success by the far right completely obfuscate the values that our society generally holds. Quite simply, people do not want to die and do not want their family or friends to die. And people are very willing to spend a lot of money and time trying to prevent death and more broadly health consequences of alcohol use. The far right knows it cannot win that argument, so it leaves it out entirely. It says that how well a regulation works is based on its cost of enforcement, and then all it needs to do to declare Prohibition a complete disaster is point to The Untouchables.

The FBI budget for snazzy outfits during Prohibition was huge.

This argument then gets extended to other arenas, not just be the far right but even by progressives. The specter of a black market was one of the chief issues in my recent debate with Prof. Anne Fleming on the Loan Shark Prevention Act.

Again, this really cannot be overstated, this is not an argument for Prohibition. While the merits are still fiercely debated, harm reduction approaches to alcohol consumption have shown some evidence of being effective. And of course while I can mock libertarians for using Hollywood history as an argument, the Drug War shows that when a prohibition is enforced largely through criminalizing use and incarceration, it does become so destructive as to warrant consideration of different approaches. But therein is the key — different approaches, not abandoning regulation altogether. And that includes not abandoning prohibitory regulations. While the focus here has been alcohol, there have been plenty of successful examples of prohibitory regulations through the history of the United States, from the Thirteenth Amendment ending one of the most abominable systems of slavery in human history to the prohibition of the pesticide DDT (and notably advocates of such prohibition support DDT’s limited use to combat malaria in very impoverished countries).

The Left needs to start pushing a new narrative on prohibitory regulations because they will be key to many of the policies we advocate. Medicare for All will prohibit private insurance. A Green New Deal (or at least an effective one) will ban fossil fuels, likely over time. Now is not the time for us to champion the causes of soda or tobacco companies — when regulations would disproportionately harm the working class and people of color, we need to advocate different regulations and not just line up with Let Kids Vape Inc.

Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.