Prohibition Was Not an Awful Flop


Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson notes that the DEA defends alcohol prohibition on its new Web site aimed at teenagers:

A word about prohibition: lots of you hear the argument that alcohol prohibition failed--so why are drugs still illegal? Prohibition did work. Alcohol consumption was reduced by almost 60% and incidents of liver cirrhosis and deaths from this disease dropped dramatically…Today, alcohol consumption is over three times greater than during the Prohibition years. Alcohol use is legal, except for kids under 21, and it causes major problems, especially in drunk driving accidents.

It's true that alcohol consumption fell during Prohibition, at least initially. In a 1991 paper, economists Jeffrey Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel estimated, based on four measures (cirrhosis, alcoholism deaths, arrests for drunkenness, and alcoholic psychoses), that consumption dropped 60 to 80 percent immediately after Prohibition was enacted, then rebounded sharply beginning in 1921. By the end of the decade, consumption was 50 to 70 percent of the pre-Prohibition level according to three measures and slightly higher according to one. Drinking did not rise precipitously after repeal. Alcohol consumption in the late 1930s was about the same as in the final years of Prohibition; it returned to the pre-Prohibition level during the next decade.

There remains the question of how important a role Prohibition itself played in these trends. In a subsequent analysis that took additional factors into account, including World War I, changes in the age structure of the population, and the lag between drinking and the development of cirrhosis, Miron concluded that "Prohibition exerted a modest and possibly even a positive effect on the consumption of alcohol."

But to decide whether banning booze was a good policy, which is what the DEA seems to be arguing, it's not enough to know whether it reduced drinking. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that paternalism can be justified on a utilitarian basis, you need to know whether the benefit from fewer alcohol-related problems outweighed the costs associated with prohibition, including the loss of privacy and freedom, black-market violence, official corruption, disrespect for the law, injuries and deaths from illicit alcohol, and the strengthening of organized crime. A consensus developed during Prohibition that, whatever its benefits might be, they were not worth these costs. By that measure, alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early '30s, like drug prohibition today, was a failure, even if it "worked" in the sense that it discouraged drinking.

It's hard to take prohibitionists seriously when they act as if the policy they favor carries no costs. But by pining for the days of Al Capone and methanol-tainted rotgut, at least the DEA is being consistent.