A century ago, on Jan. 17, 1920, the United States made a gigantic mistake. One that would take some 13 years to undo, make criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens and energize organized crime.
We’re talking, of course, about the prohibition against intoxicating beverages, which began as the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution went into effect.
We don’t talk much about prohibition anymore, perhaps because so much of its contexts and causes come from another era. For example, progressives of the 19th Century were often supporters of prohibition because they believed alcohol had a negative effect on families and society as a whole. It can be difficult to imagine the fury that many held against saloon-keepers and their ilk, yet those beliefs were firmly held.
But like it or not, prohibition didn’t work.
And that simple fact offers lessons that we’re still reluctant to learn. Intoxicating substances are all around us, and some of them are legal and some of them aren’t. Just like in the days of prohibition, law enforcement cannot possibly stop everyone from using all the illegal substances, so a less ineffective, scattershot method is employed.
Does that mean that the wealthy and well-connected get a pass, while the poorer and poverty-stricken are thrown into the criminal justice system? It happened once. It’s happening now, and for much the same reason.
We’ve learned since prohibition, too, of course. We’ve found that changing social mores can being about many improvements without wholesale bans. People can no longer smoke inside most public venues, for instance. Drunken driving has been discouraged, and bartenders punished for overserving.
When it comes to these public health issues, nurturing guidance makes a difference. Education does, too. And not the kind of overwrought education implied by an egg frying in a pan, but knowledge about the health effects of secondhand smoking or the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome. When people understand that their decisions might affect others negatively, they often choose to make better decisions.
Looked back on from the perspective of 100 years, it seems insane that we once sought to ban all alcoholic beverages. (It also seems insane that a decade or two later cigarette ads would feature doctors debating what brand was better for your throat.)
In another hundred years, what bans in place today might look similarly bizarre? What bans in place today seem bizarre now?
Time will tell.