Sunday, October 02, 2011

Prohibition worked

The new PBS Ken Burns documentary Prohibition is showing. I heard Burns interviewed promoting it, and he said that before Prohibition, Americans consumed 5 to 7 times as much alcohol as we do today. He says that we were a nation of drunkards:
CORNISH: At the beginning of the documentary, you set the stage with a voice-over reading from a gentleman named Captain Frederick Marryat and his views on the American people's drinking habits in the 19th century. Let's have a listen:

JEREMY IRONS: (as Captain Frederick Marryat) They say the British cannot fix anything properly without a dinner, but I'm sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink. If you make acquaintance, you drink. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice. If not, they drink and swear. They commence it early in life and they continue it until they soon drop into the grave.

CORNISH: Ken Burns, who was Captain Frederick Marryat and why was his general perception...


CORNISH: ...sound so close to what I might think about modern day America?


BURNS: Yeah, he was an astute British observer of our times. We were awash in alcohol in the 19th century. Our first of three episodes is called "A Nation of Drunkards." That's what we feared we were becoming, drinking five, six seven times the amount of alcohol that we consume today; towns littered with inebriates; asylums filling up with drunkards. And very understandably, a temperance movement was begun initially to drink less - a very understandable thing.
And yet people say that Prohibition did not work. Based on Burns, it appears that not only did Prohibition dramatically reduce alcohol consumption, we had a permanent reduction that continues to the present day.

Prohibition worked. People say otherwise, in order to promote the legalization of recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy.


Mark Nenadov said...

Actually, that is not correct.

The per-capita use of pure alcohol stayed fairly constant throughout, generally (unless you dig back to 1915 when it was higher). So the real change came way before prohibition. Although, the year after prohibition was enacted (1923), the per-capita use of pure alcohol was the highest since 1915. During prohibition the rate NEVER sunk lower than the 1919-1921 levels.

But, also, before advocating this theory, you may want to consider that prohibition not only didn't reduce drinking, but it INCREASED drinking of heavy spirits.

Before and after prohibition, the harder spirits only made about 50 percent of drinking in America. During prohibition it spiked and stayed within 70-90%.

One thing that prohibition did work at doing was increasing the homicide rate, there is a pronounce increase at the commencement of prohibition, and it reduced down to its old levels (and below) once prohibition was repealed.

So, prohibition didn't work. Unless you wanted heavier drinking and more mob-related killings.

Mark Nenadov said...

Those stats by the way are from a Columbia University study from the 1930's about the economics of prohibition.

Roger said...

Your only source is a 1932 study by a Columbia grad student? Even Wikipedia says that Prohibition did reduce per-capita consumption of alcohol. And the reduction was quite dramatic, according to the PBS show.

Mark Nenadov said...

Yeah, Wikipedia grads are much more reliable than Columbia grads :-)

A few thoughts that make a huge difference in how we interpret the data:

1. "Pre-prohibition" is a loaded term, and it makes a big difference if you consider pre-prohibition to be 1915, but ignore the subsequent years before prohibition was established. If we are going to measure the effect of prohibition, we have to be careful to make sure that a reduction in the consumption of alcohol that occurred before prohibition doesn't spoil our data analysis by making us think that it was caused by prohibition (when it actually predated it).

2. There is more complexity to determining the "increase of drinking". Which drinks? What age group? What social segment? What locality? Are you measuring pure alcohol or the actual liquid (Including non-alcoholic content) as well? Or are you just measuring number of drinks? If the majority of people turned from beer to harder drinks, you'd get less liquid and maybe less drink totals, but more pure alcohol. The study I referred to measured pure alcohol.

If you look enough (at actual papers that provide statistics and give cited details), you will find that unless you ignore the distinctions I've mentioned here, use of alcohol either stayed about the same or increased during prohibition, and it's probably safest to say (given the complexities of calculating it and the lack of comprehensive information), that there was little marked change in consumption (it was the NATURE of that consumption and the activities that surrounded distribution that changed radically).

Roger said...

Prohibiting something, or making more expensive, always results in less consumption. That is just basic economics. The PBS show said that pre-prohibition alcohol consumption was much higher. Alcohol-related disease was way down during Prohibition.

I realize that many people did not like Prohibition for various reason, but that is no excuse for sloppy reasoning. If Prohibition had failed, then I would be able to read the proof somewhere with some real data. Instead, all I get is some hand-waving from people who did not like the law.

Tim Engstrom said...

It depends on what a person considers to be the measurements for "worked."

Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption, yes, but it made a nation of criminals out of ordinary citizens, increased organized crime and corrupted many government officials, spurring widespread distrust of government. That's not "working" in my book.