Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Wirkman VirkkalaProgressive Prohibition
Posted at 7:14 pm on June 9, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

From personal experience with self-styled “progressives,” I define Progressivism as the belief in no sort of progress, whatsoever, that is not tied to the growth of the state.

Historically, that’s not a bad definition, either. The Progressive Movement changed the Constitution of the United States with a series of amendments to the Constitution: The income tax, the direct election of senators, prohibition of sale and transportation of alcohol, and women’s suffrage. Each of these amendments grew government.

John Lott got into hot water for emphasizing — and ably demonstrating in his clumsily titled recent entry into the Freakonomics Zone — the importance of the women’s vote for the growth of government in America. Many women take umbrage at . . . the facts Lott marshaled, and the expert natural experiment he monitored and extrapolated from. But, all hurt feelings aside, the growth of Mommy State ideas has a pretty obvious paternity. Make that maternity. Deal with the truth as you must.

What I hadn’t known until listening to the latest EconTalk podcast, was that not only was women’s suffrage related closely to Prohibition, but so was the Income Tax Amendment. According to Daniel Okrent, interviewed by the great Russ Roberts, not only were women a driving mass of voters for Prohibition (which was, in a sense, an attack on a characteristically working-class male vice), but the income tax allowed the federal government to ban alcohol. How? By giving it a new source of revenue, to make up for the alcohol excises.

Prohibition, as most know, now, was an amazingly unsuccessful “experiment.” Quoted in the podcast is the famous judgment that the 18th Amendment was a great success: The Dries got what they wanted, Prohibition, and the Wets got what they wanted, alcohol. Of course, what America, at large, got was

  • Increased violence
  • Increased regulation
  • Family/Busybody mindset normed into the general culture
  • Decreased quality of alcohol products, including poisoned products
  • Widespread hypocrisy and diminished respect for law

Any of these would be calamitous, alone. Together, they severely undermined America’s culture of individualism.

The upshot was the replacement of fraternal government — the government of neighbors and strangers, by means of law — with paternalistic/maternalistic government, the only two kinds George Lakoff understands.

Prohibition was the “great achievement” of Progressivism. Progressives were people who thought they were fighting corruption. But what they did was corrupt the political culture. Collectivism had been seeping into American politics throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Progressives made this collectivist mindset the law of the land, especially with their hallmark amendments to the Constitution.

And the great harm Prohibition caused was not really offset by the eventual repeal of 18th Amendment. Americans had become accustomed to the federal government bullying and preaching and controlling their lives. The precedent had been firmly set. The repeal, which was largely a result of Depression Era fiscal needs, merely allowed alcohol back into production and distribution so that it could be taxed. No grand lesson was learned by Americans.

Today’s War on Drugs is a liberal-conservative reprise of Prohibition. It fits perfectly within the moral imagination of corrupted “family values” folk who see other adults as children to be harshly punished (paternal mindset) or “treated” (maternal mindset) or both (“moderate”). Only if Americans force their politicians to surrender their arms in the crusade, and give up on running Americans’ medical/psycho-pharmacological lives, will a diminution of Drug Prohibition be a conclusive win for liberty. Half-measures — the life-blood of politics — will merely feed the ravenous thirst of the Usual Suspects, some (but not all of whom) call themselves (quite wrongly) “progressives.”


Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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