Celebrate the End of Prohibition as a Victory for Liberty

December 5, 2008

by Mario Rizzo

On December 5, 1933 the national prohibition of alcohol was repealed. This is a date that should remind us of the spirit of liberty. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from alcohol prohibition have not been applied to the drug prohibition of our time. Furthermore, the gathering support for penalizing, in some form or other – subtle or not-so-subtle – activities that may harm the individual himself is evidence that the moral and political climate in America has changed. But everyone should toast with whatever they care to drink that spirit of liberty. In the meantime I found a website that gives interesting facts about the repeal of prohibition. This is an excerpt from it:

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong abstainer who had contributed at least $350,000 and perhaps as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems caused by prohibition.  He explained his change of belief in a letter published in The New York Times:

“When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped- with a host of advocates of temperance-that it would be generally supported by public opinion and thus the day be hastened when the value to society of men with minds and bodies free from the undermining effects of alcohol would be generally realized. That this has not been the result, but rather that drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree-I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.”

UPDATE: See the interesting article at Rasmussen Reports.

12 Responses to “Celebrate the End of Prohibition as a Victory for Liberty”


  1. Thanks for sharing the link.

    I believe that the logic of alcohol permissibility, as opposed to any other mind-altering drug, is largely an historical anachronism. Alcohol was the drug of choice among our European ancestors, therefore it remains cultural acceptable today.

    While other drugs are banned using a weak moral argument, the deadly killer which is alcohol remains ‘unpunished.’

    Until the drug cartels get lobbyists in Washington to grease the wheels, I don’t foresee this changing anytime soon. But, of course, the cartels would never want to give up their monopoly over the drug trade… drug criminalization is the best type of government interference they could have hope for, to keep profits sky high.

    Ironically, the best way to win the war on drugs would be to legalize it (to get rid of the gangsterism and unproductive social stigma against drug users) and treat drug dependence like any other disease.

    Of course, Washington its too sure of its own moral high ground to come up with real solutions to real problems. There’s nothing politicians like better than increasing their budgets to take care of important ‘social issues’ that keeps up appearances only long enough to get re-elected.

  2. Mario Rizzo Says:

    I agree. Very insightful.


  3. What “gathering support” is that? More people think marijuana prohibition is dumb than ever before, and with the “non-reformist reform” of medical marijuana legalization in CA and slight decriminalization of pot for personal use in MA, we’re well on our way to the end of drug prohibition. Add in the fact that the US War on Drugs in Latin America is an government-admitted failure, and Europe’s “experiments” in little danger of repeal, and I think within a generation or so our own Prohibition will be over.

  4. Mario Rizzo Says:

    I mean gathering support for penalizing or paternalizing cigarette smokers and consumers of (trans) fat. I see no sign of repeal of the prohibition of drugs besides marijuana. And state enactment of medical marijuana laws has been hampered by the Federal government. Furhermore, this is an increasingly risk-averse society with all sorts of products banned which have very small risks of harm. This attitude will not help in the drive toward drug prohibition repeal. NEVERTHELESS, I would be happy to be wrong!


  5. I agree with the penalizing — if not the paternalizing — of cigarette smokers. It is the smoker’s duty to contain the externalities created by his disgusting habit, and if he cannot, I ask him to please refrain. The trans-fat ban is stupid but it doesn’t affect much of our food — this kind of law is usually only passed if there is little opposition, as regulators tend to be hopelessly (for them) behind the curve. Everyone I know has avoided trans-fats for years. In the same vein, the state took credit for moving children from factories into schools with Child Labor laws — but in reality, the market had nearly eliminated child labor by the time the laws were passed.

    As for society being risk-averse, this is overall a good thing. It is a sign that we are at an extremely high level of development and have a high standard of living, when the most minor of things — the kind of fats in our foods, the conditions under which those foods were raised, even the color of our neighbors’ homes — are considered to affect our lives to such an extent that they are worth our time addressing. Risk aversion isn’t the bad part. The state is.

  6. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Well, I guess I must be more precise. First, as to smoking. I have no objection to penalizing smokers when they seriously cause harm to others. But the dangers of second-hand smoke have been greatly exaggerated, at least in most casual contexts. Cigarette taxes are a form of penalizing (as well as revenue-enhancement) that has nothing to do with externalities. In fact, some academics have argued that the tax should be much higher to represent, in the present, the harm that people impose on their future selves from smoking. This would encourage “myopic” smokers to stop. Second, on transfats: It doesn’t matter that you and your friends have avoided them — lots of people did not. Third, on the risk-averse society. You are absolutely right that as income rises people buy more safety (less risk). You are also right that the main problem is the State. (I always capitalize to emphasize its God-like nature.) But what I am saying is that this risk-aversion is used by the State to frighten people who then support banning products. The amount of safety that people are willing to buy on the market is much less than the amount of safety that they can be talked into by political exploiters. This goes to the point of the likelihood of making certain drugs legal.


  7. You all seem to be thinking deep thoughts here tonight, screw that!
    I am celebrating right now, in a half in the bag fashion truly in the spirit of the occasion. . .

    It’s important to talk about freedom, but equally important to appreciate it!

  8. Bob Murphy Says:

    Nice post, Mario. That was very interesting to see Rockefeller’s change of heart. I can’t imagine something comparable today. Would T. Boone Pickens come out in a few years and admit, “America wasn’t ready for wind power”?

  9. Nick Danger Says:

    “It is the smoker’s duty to contain the externalities created by his disgusting habit, and if he cannot, I ask him to please refrain.”

    I just love it when people exalt their personal likes and dislikes into universal principles of evaluation!

  10. David Says:

    Jeremy Sapienza is totally wrong when he equates cigarette smoking with negative externalities. First, what counts as a positive, negative or no externality is individual and subjective. Second, a private (indoor) tavern or restaurant ensures no or negligible externalities: customers enter because they expect their benefits to outweigh their costs, with the likely effect of product differentiation (both smoky and smokefree establishments). Externalities would only seem to apply to areas in the public domain (city streets etc.). So it would make more sense to restrict outdoor than indoor smoking. But whether this is a negative externality depends on the prevailing preferences in the population (there seem to be a huge difference between the Anglosphere on the one hand and places like Spain, China or Japan).
    A related problem is that even if most people dislike the smell of outdoor smoking (which causes negligible risks to non-smokers), implying a majoritarian argument for a ban, such a ban would have slippery-slope implications. Why not ban purple clothes, red hair, or garlic as well?

  11. David Says:

    One more thing about Mr. Sapienza’s pronouncements, this tiem about it being a good thing to be so “risk-averse” as to regulate food, the color of homes (what does this have to do with risk aversion?) etc. Detailed regulations do increase the predictability of one’s surroundings. But detailed regulations also suppress entrepreneurial experimentation and innovation. It’s a recipe for ensuring a more stagnant (less dynamic) society.


  12. Nowhere did I say that my preferences apply to anyone else’s private property, so you can just forget that tired line of argumentation. I agree and say all the time that the smoking laws are exactly backwards — people should be banned from smoking in public areas and forced to contain their pollution inside. As it is now, every single block in New York City is lined with smokers blowing smoke in the faces of every pedestrian because they are not allowed to do so inside. The bar and restaurant smoking ban has created perverse unintended consequences — before I could avoid places where I knew people would be smoking. Now I cannot avoid it if I want to go anywhere.

    David, you have also misunderstood my risk aversion comments — I was merely stating ingeneral that risk aversion is a sign of high living standards. We can worry about trifles instead of where our next meal will come from. My point was that the good of societal risk aversion (more pleasant surroundings, safety) is greater than the bad (busybodyish laws).

    Libertarians love to find enemies where there are none.


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