That was then (1920–1933)
On February 20, 1933 the United States Congress proposed the Twenty-first amendment to the Constitution, the only amendment that repealed a previous amendment, namely, the Eighteenth Amendment, Section One of which read:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
The Eighteenth Amendment was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1917, was ratified by three-quarters of the states on January 16, 1919 and went into effect on January 17, 1920. The amendment did not forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it made alcoholic beverages almost impossible to obtain legally, since they could not be manufactured, sold or transported. People who had well-stocked wine cellars or liquor cabinets in their own homes could legally consume what they already had in stock, but replenishing the stock legally became all but impossible.
The Eighteenth Amendment came into to effect after several decades of intense campaigning by social organizations that were intent on reducing alcoholism and social ills resulting from the immoderate consumption of intoxifying beverages. Concern about spousal abuse, financial irresponsibility, family neglect, chronic unemployment and petty crimes had given rise to anti-alcohol temperance unions in the early United States, even before the United States Constitution was written. There were several waves of temperance movements in the nineteenth century, the third and most successful of which began with the founding of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1893. The ASL concentrated on getting legislation passed at all levels of government—town, county, state and federal—aimed at banning entirely or at least strongly regulating the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The educational campaign of the ASL attracted followers from all walks of life, all religious persuasions, and all along the spectrum of political ideology. The movement eventually attracted doctors, lawyers, industrialists, business leaders, labor union organizers, conservative and liberal clergy and theologians, educators, the Ku Klux Klan and radical leftist political organizations. When the Eighteenth Ammendment was passed by Congress, it was the first constitutional amendment that had a time limit imposed on it for ratification. Section Three stipulated:
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
Like all amendments, the Eighteenth required ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures; there then being forty-eight-states, ratification required thirty-six states. Just over one year from the time the amendment was passed by the Congress, it was ratified by Nebraska, the thirty-sixth state legislature to approve the measure. Eventually forty-six states voted in favor of the amendment. Only the state legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island voted against the amendment.
In the short term, the Eighteenth Amendment apparently served its purpose. Crime rates decreased, as did the incidence of domestic violence and accidents in many sectors. Alcohol consumption declined dramatically in low-income groups, thus seemingly lightening the financial burdens among low-income families. The early successes, however, were undermined by a rise in the influence of organized crime syndicates, which promptly seized on the opportunity of providing alcohol illegally. Organized crime syndicates fought one another for shares in the black market. Many police departments and governmental agencies were quickly corrupted by bribery, while others were simply overwhelmed trying to enforce a law it was impossible to enforce. The Eighteenth Amendment, and the Congressional legislation aimed at enabling it and enforcing it, eventually came to be seen as the most catastrophic legislation in the nation’s history.
On February 14, 1933, Senator John J. Blaine (R-WI) introduced legislation to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. The Blaine Act was passed on February 17, 1933. As was mentioned above, Congress proposed the Twenty-first Amendment on February 20, 1933. The wording of the amendment could hardly have been more simple. It said:
Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
On December 5, 1933, Utah was the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment. It officially became effective on December 15, 1933. Maine ratified the amendment before it officially became effective, and Montana ratified it a year later. North and South Carolina both voted against the amendment. Eight states (Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota) took no actions to consider the amendment and therefore neither approved it not voted against it. What Section 2 of the Amendment did, in effect, was to make the regulation of alcohol a matter for states, counties and municipalities, not a matter for the federal government.
This is Now (2017)
America’s unsuccessful experiment in trying to prohibit a behavior that had widespread popular appeal has provided a lesson that has not fully been learned. That lesson was well understood by the Legalist School of ancient China, which was built upon a number of well-considered principles. One of those principles was that when laws are passed that most, or at least a significantly large number of, people are disinclined to obey, such laws turn out to be unenforceable. When laws are not enforced, then the population’s respect for law declines. When respect for law declines, the population becomes unruly. An unruly population benefits no one.
Although the intentions of the legislators who tried to put alcohol out of reach may have been noble—they did, after all, wish to make society better and individuals mentally and physically more healthy—their way of achieving their goals turned out to have consequences diametrically opposed to their intentions. It was a mistake to put alcohol out of reach for everyone because there were some people who abused i, and it took thirteen years before nearly everyone outside of the Carolinas saw that the legislation did little except to create enormous wealth for those who provided the outlawed product. There are still areas in American culture where that the results of the experiment in prohibition has not been fully absorbed.
When President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, a crusade that several subsequent Presidents have taken up, he put into motion a number of mechanisms that did little to reduce the flow of drugs into the country and the manufacture of outlawed substances by domestic entrepreneurs. The main beneficiaries of the various phases of the protracted “war on drugs” have been foreign and domestic crime syndicates. The principal casualties of this war, as in most wars, have been the relatively powerless ordinary people who lack the resources to defend themselves against the powerful who use them as pawns. American prisons are filled with people who have been convicted of possessing illegal drugs, who end up spending time in prison environments that do them very little good and may do them considerable harm, who are eventually released and find themselves ineligible for student loans because of their criminal records, and who struggle to find housing and fulfilling jobs because of a systemic fear in mainstream society of people with criminal records. An underclass of people who face insurmountable obstacles has been created by a failure of legislators to recognize that one of the best solutions to the problem of people pursuing forbidden fruit is to stop forbidding the fruit they are seeking.
It is not only the warriors against drugs who have failed to grasp the lessons of the failure of the experiment in prohibiting alcohol. The people who advocate the prohibition of abortion and the criminalization of some forms of sexuality are most probably advocating for legislation that would be every bit as catastrophic as the Eighteenth Amendment. The well-meaning people who try to improve health by limiting access to sugary drinks seem to be falling into the same trap of trying to limit access to something that a good many people find attractive. The belief of the followers of the 45th President that building a wall and deporting people who have entered the country illegally will surely fail to have the desired effects, simply because there are too many farmers and manufacturers and the consumers of their products who are benefitting from the constant influx of people coming into the country willing and able to do the backbreaking work that few others can or will do. By far the best solution to the problem of illegal immigration is to make it possible for people to immigrate legally.
One group of people in American society who do seem to have grasped the lessons of the prohibition era are advocates of certain kinds of restriction of access to firearms. Contrary to the hyperbolic rhetoric of the National Rife Association, hardly anyone seeks to reduce the numbers of people killed or injured by firearms by banning firearms altogether. Rather than an absolute abolition of an instrument of violence that a significant segment of the population has become accustomed to seeing as desirable, legislators have tended to strive for more modest restrictions. Where I live, for example, firearms are prohibited for everyone but the police on school grounds and university campuses. Remarkably few students have been injured by bears, mountain lions, coyotes or javelinas as a result of gun-free campuses. Firearms are also prohibited in hospitals and clinics, and in most retail stores and restaurants. While I personally would prefer to live in a world where no one experienced a craving to carry any weapon of any kind for any reason, I know it would be as foolish to try to prohibit weapons as it was of Congress to try to prohibit alcohol in 1920.
Probably the most successful campaign to improve the general well-being of the population by limiting access to a harmful product has been the very gradual reduction of tobacco use in many countries of the world. The number of places in which it is possible to purchase tobacco products is much smaller than it was in the 1950s. The number of places where people are permitted to smoke is much smaller than it was even twenty years ago. As people encounter fewer smokers and fewer environments in which smoking is acceptable behavior, the social aspect of the habit has all but disappeared. Advertisements filled with fun-loving young people enhancing their sexual attractiveness by choosing the right brand of cigarette have been replaced by public service announcements of old people dying horrible deaths resulting from their tobacco habits of decades ago. The overall result has been a significant decline in tobacco use without a steady increase in tobacco-related criminality. There is much to be learned from the campaign to make tobacco use less attractive rather than banning the product altogether.
I am interested in hearing what experiences other people have had either with successful or with failed efforts by parents, educators or legislators to coax people away from unhealthy enticements.