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Prohibition: The Greatest American Blunder

killing the Indians and slavery were probably the most evil things Americans have ever done, but the prohibition of alcohol was by far the stupidest. In this article we are going to take a look at the history of prohibition, discuss its effects, and explain why it is one of the dumbest things the United States has ever done.

Why Prohibition? Groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union were able to successfully convince people that alcohol was the cause of a variety of social problems. Below are some of the prevaling reasons why this national tragedy occurred.

  • Health: People believed that cirrhosis of the liver and other alcohol related deaths could be prevented. However, in 1931, Dr. Snell of the Mayo Clinic stated: "We know now that cirrhosis occurs in only 4 per cent of alcoholic individuals." He went on to say that alcohol related deaths were only responsible for less than 1.5% of total deaths at the time. The country would soon see a dramatic increase in alcohol related deaths and injuries after Prohibition went into effect.
  • Worker Absenteeism and Performance: Industrialists were concerned with worker absentee and performance problems that were blamed on over-indulgence in the saloons at night.
  • Family Life: Proponents argued that alcohol was causing rampant domestic violence and many families were without a father because they spent all of their nights drunk in saloons. As a result, a large percentage of reformers were women.
  • Germany and the War: Many people believed that drinking beer funneled money into Germany who was our enemy at the time. They also argued that available grains should be used to feed the troops rather than make alcohol.
  • Saloons and Crime: Proponents argued that there was increasing lawlessness and crime in the saloons of America. While the saloons would disappear, they would be replaced by another institution in far greater numbers.
In the United States, Prohibition was put into effect by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (ratified January 16, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). The Volstead Act was written by Andrew John Volstead, who was an absolute teetotaler (non-drinker). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. It banned the manufacture and sale of beverages with an alcohol content exceeding 0.5%. In some ways, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act were largely symbolic as prohibitionists had already banned alcohol in 26 out of 48 states before Prohibition went into effect.

Prohibition was supposed to usher in an era of economic and moral prosperity, however, the nation would soon discover that their efforts had the exact opposite effect.

The most immediate effect was the destruction of many jobs resulting from the closure of saloons, breweries, distilleries, and other alcohol related establishments. In addition, the government lost $500 million dollars per year in tax revenue. From the start, an environment of economic prosperity had not been created.

Because of our European heritage, Americans are drinkers and it has always been an important part of our culture. So naturally, people were going to find a way to drink anyway. Speakeasies, which were essentially illegal saloons, began popping up all over the place. The name speakeasy came about because patrons had to speak easy convincing the doorman that they were not a dry agent in order to get in. Dry agents did not have forced entry rights at the time. Because they were small, speakeasies actually outnumbered the number of saloons that existed before Prohibition. People partied in record numbers and actually consumed more alcohol than before the "dry" days, hence, this time period was known as the "Roaring Twenties".

Of course, the availability of alcohol had dropped dramatically forcing people to find alternate methods to get their drink. This lead to large-scale underground manufacture of moonshine, "bathtub gin", and other dangerous substances that caused blindness, paralysis, and even death in many cases. Between 1920 and 1925 the death toll from liquor poisoning rose from 1,064 to 4,154 deaths.

Alcohol was smuggled over the Canadian border and medicinal whiskey prescriptions (which were allowed for certain patients) increased 400%. The scarceness of alcoholic beverages led to a dramatic increase in price, for example, a beer typically cost about 80 cents - the equivalent of $8 in today's money. "Near Beer" became popular because it was legal (under 0.5% alcohol) and could be easily spiked with spirits to create a full strength beer.

Prohibition promised a decrease in crime, emptied prisons, and lower taxes. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States had already seen a gradual decrease in the rates of serious crimes, however, Prohibition immediately reversed this trend. Crime increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. Homicide rates nearly doubled during the next decade. Prisons were overcrowded and taxes were raised in order to support an increasing need for police officers and prisons. Total federal expenditures on prisons increased more than 1,000% during Prohibition. Despite increased budgets for prisons and police, crime continued to increase and prison overcrowding worsened. Police department's increased focus on rising drinking crimes, diverted attention away from the enforcement and investigation of other types of crime which also increased.

Of course, Prohibition also gave birth to gangs and the mafia who smuggled alchohol into the United States, bribed public officials, and often resorted to violent crime to achieve their goals. The most notorious gangster was Al Capone who was a bootlegger operating out of Chicago. This new element was infinitely worse than the unwanted behavior found in saloons that Prohibition was supposed to cure.

In 1927, nine New York lawyers created an organization called "The Voluntary Committee of Lawyers" (VCL) and their purpose was to fight for repeal of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. Additional repeal groups such as "Americans Against the Prohibition Amendment" and the "Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform" came about and popular support for repeal grew rapidly.

1929 Stock market crashed followed by the great depression and alcohol related crime continued to increase.

In the 1932 presidential election the Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover who was in favor of maintaining prohibition. The Democrats nominated the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who pledged to repeal it. FDR won the election and in 1933 federal prohibition was repealed. Oddly enough, Utah was the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which called for the repeal, and was the last ratification needed to put the repeal into effect.

The battle had not been completely won as there were state laws that had to be contended with. Most states got rid of their prohibition laws, but Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma kept their prohibition laws in place the longest. Kansas ended statewide prohibition in 1948, Oklahoma in 1959, and Missouri was the last in 1966.

As one would expect, the crime rate immediately began to drop after repeal and continued to do so throughout the '30s. There were, however, lingering scars left from the 13 years of prohibition, particularly in the brewing industry. Less than half of the breweries survived the ordeal and did so by converting their production to other products such as ice cream, root beer, and syrup. Many more went under during the Great Depression and the ones that did make it were cranking out inexpensive, watered down lagers that would become synonymous with "American Beer". These were basically the only beer options for the next 50 years until the microbrewing revolution began in the early 1980's.

So what did our country learn from the "noble experiment"? Unfortunately, not very much. The USA has been fighting a losing war on drugs for decades and its symptoms are remarkably similar to the effects of Prohibition. History has proven that attempts to legislate morality by banning institutions such as drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and gambling, are ineffective. People will continue to do what they want to do whether it is legal or not, and the effects of prohibition generally lead to worse conditions than they are designed to prevent.

A man named Georg Wilhelm Hegel once said, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history".

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