December 2003 marks the 70th anniversary of the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed alcohol prohibition in the United States. The 13 years between the passage of the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments saw the alcohol trade go underground, bringing with it all the ancillary crime that comes with a black market. Alcohol abuse in the United States went up, not down, and civil liberties and tax dollars were sacrificed to what amounted to a grand, failed experiment in state-enforced morality.
One would think that, given the failure of Prohibition, Americans wouldn’t need to worry about its return. That may not be the case. A well-funded movement of neoprohibitionists is afoot, with advocates in media, academia, and government. The movement sponsors a variety of research organizations, which publish dozens of studies each year alleging the corruptive effects of alcohol. Those studies are taken at face value by well-intentioned policymakers at the local, state, and federal level. New laws are enacted that curb Americans’ access to alcohol.
Some of those laws aim to make alcohol less available through taxation schemes, others through strict licensing or zoning requirements, still others by censoring alcohol advertisements. State and federal government officials have also sought to curb alcohol abuse from the demand side, but such efforts ultimately prove misguided. The 2000 federal law that encouraged local officials to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving, for example, will have little effect on public safety. Instead, it shifts law enforcement resources away from catching heavily intoxicated drunk drivers, who pose a risk, to harassing responsible social drinkers, who don’t.
Taken together, the well-organized efforts of activists, law enforcement, and policymakers portend an approaching “back-door prohibition”—an effort to curb what some of them call the “environment of alcoholism”—instead of holding individual drinkers responsible for their actions. Policymakers should be wary of attempts to restrict choice when it comes to alcohol. Such policies place the external costs attributable to a small number of alcohol abusers on the large percentage of people who consume alcohol responsibly. Those efforts didn’t work when enacted as a wide-scale, federal prohibition, and they are also ineffective and counterproductive when implemented incrementally.