by UnHerd
Wednesday, 17
March 2021

Was 1920s America right to prohibit alcohol?

Banning booze had plenty of upsides, as a new paper shows
by UnHerd
Not everyone was pleased with the Prohibition experiment Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

The news that Scotland is to allow pubs to reopen, but not to serve alcohol indoors, recalls the Prohibition Era that started a hundred years ago.

Between 1920 and 1933, the United States imposed a nationwide ban on the production, import, export and sale of most forms of booze. These days we simply call it “Prohibition” — and it’s become a byword for the unintended consequences of state interference in personal pleasures.

In our own era, it’s a favourite case study for the advocates of decriminalising the trade in cannabis and other drugs.

But was Prohibition the comprehensive failure that it’s now imagined to be?

In an article for VoxEU, David Jacks, Krishna Pendakur, Hitoshi Shigeoka write about their recent research into the effects of repealing Prohibition.

One would have thought that the effects of ending such an important government intervention in lives of so many people would be the subject of intensive study. But as the authors point out “there is surprisingly little research in quantitatively assessing its outcomes.”

Jacks and his colleagues have made an effort to put that right. Their own analysis makes use of the fact that there was a lot of local variation in the extent to which Prohibition was imposed and subsequently lifted. This goes right down to county level and beyond. (In fact, to this day, hundreds of counties and smaller jurisdictions still prohibit the sale of alcohol, either partially or wholly.)

In any case, for the 1933 to 1939 period the authors have a lot of fine-grained data to help them separate the specific impact of ending Prohibition from unrelated trends.

Some of their conclusions confirm the standard critiques of Prohibition. For instance, they found that lifting restrictions on the alcohol trade was associated with a reduction in homicides. There was a decrease in fatal accidents too (“importantly, this category includes accidental poisonings”, the authors note).

However, the data also confirms a huge downside to repeal:

“We find that repeal was associated with equivalent and significant increases in infant mortality in both counties that chose to allow for the sale of alcohol (wet counties) and in neighbouring counties that chose not to (dryish counties), suggesting a large role for cross-border policy spillovers… Cumulatively, we estimate that 4,493 annual excess infant deaths could be attributed to the repeal of federal Prohibition.”
- David Jacks, Krishna Pendakur, Hitoshi Shigeoka — VoxEU

The authors don’t come to any firm conclusion as to why the increased availability of alcohol resulted in this death toll. They mention drinking in pregnancy is one possible mechanism. It seems plausible that neglect was another cause — both as a direct result of intoxication and second-order effects like the impact on family stability and finances. In any case, they note that infant mortality is a “rough indicator of population health”.

Whatever its failings, it’s important to realise that Prohibition was not imposed as a result of a mere ‘moral panic’. There was a reason why so many people were desperate to get alcohol out of their communities — and why women were often at the forefront of the campaign to do so.

Join the discussion

  • I’m generally against banning anything for adults, although I have banned alcohol from my own life simply because it’s better without it, for me. And of course, alcohol was available during Prohibition, just really unsafe types of homemade alcohol.
    Infant mortality is a much more complicated subject that this article indicates, not in the least because it is counted differently around the world.

  • No, it wasn’t right. And don’t give our evil, authoritarian, tyrant politicians any more ideas.

  • They are remarkably wicked, the political class. This is because the selection process, one funded by the Donor Class, the Soros kind of money and power elite, who fund election campaigns from the bottom to the top. At each level they require more obedience, at each level their permission (to run under the Party name, both parties, they own them both) comes at a higher cost, till the greasy pole a politician climbs finally ends up with them having sold themselves to gain the top, and so become one of them. This was why Trump was so amazing, he bypassed having to sell his soul to the devil to reach such heights, as Great Politicians often did in the past – but most climbed the greasy pole, like Rome and most since did, by selling out to the wealthy power underneath.

    BUT, then, there is a country to be run, and that is done, even with the tyrant politicians. Laws must be made and enforced for the citizens well being. Rule of law still works pretty much, government programs are funded and managed, and so on – The actual running of things works, it is POLICY which is corrupt, and now it is to destroy the diasporaed members of European Middle Class, as they are the only ones with power to resist, to allow the brave, new, world of globalism and Great Reset.

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