Rethinking lessons from prohibition: illustration of government by data and urgency

In recent series of posts (ending with this one), I described how a government may operate by data driven decision-making to automate short lasting rules and limited to the highest priority immediate issues.   I added the element of urgency to provide a means to limit the number of active rules due to the difficulty of following rules that change too frequently.

In these discussions, I argued that such a government involves a philosophical shift that recognizes the origin of time as the perpetually renewing recent future instead of some fixed point in the past.   With this new perspective, concepts such as consistency (non-contradiction), and causality are less important.   The ability to automate rapid decisions based on data requires the elimination of human deliberation to agree on a cognitive justification for the decision.    We allow for the possibility of making decisions on spurious or even nonsensical data relations.   Despite the lack of rational explanations for some data patterns, we can observe that following the data-driven recommendations more likely result in beneficial outcomes.   Averaging the consequences of multiple such decisions, we observe that the rewards outweigh the losses.   We can have an effective government based on short-term goals without long-term planning justifications.   Inevitably, the short-term decisions may make new problems but those simply become the tasks of future iterations of the same form of government.

The US experience with national prohibition of alcohol (1920-1933) may provide an illustration of a short-duration rule meant to address an urgent issue.  Although the law in the form of a constitutional amendment was meant to be permanent and it was based on intense democratic efforts, the experience mirrors what would happen with a short-lasting rule to address an immediate urgency.   Leading up to the national prohibition, the concept of a national prohibition was popular enough to pass a constitutional amendment and one that unusually regulated individual activities normally left to states.  The resulting rule of the amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act was very strict about regulating alcohol distribution.  The surprising low popularity of the law led to the eventual repeal so that the law became a short-term rule instead of a lasting law of the land.

I have not studied the prohibition period very much but it is a period that has always attracted my attention.   Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the prohibition was nearly a half-century earlier.   However, my hometown had experienced at least a moderate impact from prohibition.  Although the town was in coal mining territory, the economy within the town prior to and during prohibition was heavily based on entertainment through bars and dance halls for miners living in adjacent areas.  By the time I was growing up, prohibition was still in living memory of my grandparents.  Although it was not discussed in depth, the basic message I learned was the prohibition was a mistake.

My preconceptions of prohibition matches pretty well with the descriptions of the failure of the law as described by this Cato Institute report.   I assumed this was widely accepted as a failure in the sense it never should have passed and that things returned to conditions prior to prohibition.   Certainly, from my new generation eyes growing up where the concept of dry-counties was some distant exotic concept, I did not see any stigma to alcohol consumption except for people who became alcoholics, or problem drinkers.   Alcohol drinking seemed to be inherent in culture.

Later when I read about the prohibition, I was surprised to learn that there was active academic arguments about the benefits or at least transformation of culture that came from prohibition such as described in this NIH document.   Prohibition did change attitudes toward alcohol in how it applies in culture.   In terms of per-capita alcohol consumption, it does appears that prohibition did not change anything.  We drink a lot of alcohol today and certainly alcohol has a prominent role in popular culture, particularly for leisure and entertainment.

Modern cultural approach to alcohol is different from pre-prohibition in terms of when and where we consume alcohol.  Prior to prohibition, alcohol was consumed in saloons or taverns on a daily basis or perhaps several times a day.   The saloons or taverns had regular patrons who visited daily at the same time each day where many may have a drink at lunchtime and at dinner time.   Prior to prohibition, there was a steady diet of alcohol so that alcohol became an essential staple for getting through the work day.

In contrast, today we consume a comparable quantity of alcohol on a per-capita basis but the consumption is limited to after work and for most people constrained to weekends.   Most of the alcohol is consumed in homes or in private parties.   It is fairly universally expected that people would not have alcohol in their system during working hours.  This is a change in culture about the more appropriate times for alcohol consumption and this change may trace back to influences of the prohibition experiment.

It is interesting that modern definitions of problem drinking define binge drinking (for men) as 5 or more drinks in a single setting and heavy drinking to be 15 or more drinks per week.  In modern times, this is more likely to be concentrated at weekends (Thursday-Saturday) rather than spread out during the week.   Modern heavy drinking often requires binge drinking.  I imagine that prior to prohibition, that heavy drinking occurred steadily throughout the week: a drink for lunch and one or two after work each day and consumed in taverns, bars, or saloons near work instead of at private homes.  This would have resulted in always having some alcohol in the system but rarely getting very drunk.

It does appears to me that prohibition did leave a lasting change on cultural expectations for alcohol consumption.  According to the information in NIH document, prohibition did have the result of putting out of business a large number of breweries, distilleries, and establishments like taverns for drinking.    Prohibition drove drinking to be on private property and after prohibition the marketing of alcohol promoted the ideals of drinking at home or at private parties instead of going to a bar.

In recent decades, there has been a revival of public establishments for drinking.  This is driven by the popularity of integrating happy hours into work days as well as the popularity of craft beers and selective wines.   But even though this may be fostering more frequent alcohol drinking during the work-week, this drinking is still constrained to after work hours and generally not a regular daily habit for most people.   When people qualify as heavy drinkers according to the above definition, there is probably a day or two of binge drinking.

In modern culture, we generally consider alcoholics to be someone who demands to drink every day.  Someone who binges on the weekend but abstains during the work week does not have as much of a problem with alcohol as someone who has 2-3 drinks steadily every day of the week.

Again, my knowledge of prohibition and of alcohol issues is very limited.  I am discussing these topics in terms of my impression of the impact of national prohibition.   Although prohibition failed in its goals of a permanent feature of government, it could have been considered a success if the original expectation was that it would be the temporary rule it turned out to be.

I think prohibition can be a good illustration of how temporary rule making can work.   Similar to my earlier thoughts on government by data and urgency, prohibition was a response to an issue that was considered to be urgent at the time.  The strict enforcement of the rule while it was in effect had various consequences that informed a later rule to repeal the prohibition.  Despite the repeal, the short period of prohibition had a lasting impact on culture in terms of how continued alcohol consumption can be tolerated without causing a new urgency to do something about it.

Prohibition resulted in a change in alcohol drinking patterns during the week. Prohibition discouraged alcohol consumption or influence in basic societal functions such as the work-place and political or government meetings.  As a result, we encouraged a new culture that assigns alcohol to a recreational format where alcohol is to be enjoyed at the end of work (especially the end of the work-week) in spaces more closely associated with home than with work.   Today’s cultural attitudes toward alcohol is an offspring of the prohibition.

The period of prohibition itself had a lot of bad consequences.   The alcohol trade went underground and resulted in production of more dangerous alcohol.  Improvised distilleries and the distillation of alcohol sources not meant for consumption led to distribution of poisoned alcohol.   The lack of low alcoholic beers and wines led to the production of high proof liquor (of dubious quality) to use to mix with wine or non-alcoholic beer.   In addition, the underground trade in alcohol financed a flourishing of organized crimes that resulted in turf battles and homicides.

The other complaint about prohibition was the unexpected unpopularity of the law.   The intentionally difficult process of making a constitutional amendment should have assured a high popularity of the law but the law was unpopular very early.  Part of the problem was that people expected the law to tolerate beers and wines and focus instead on the hard liquor characteristic of saloons.   Instead the law went after everything over 0.5% alcohol.

The law enjoyed considerable popularity.  Many people did cooperate with the law.  The problem was the minority that did not comply was a large minority.   There were enough people who objected to the law to force the repeal later.

The condemnation of the prohibition is that these errors should never have occurred.  It was a bad law that never should have been passed in the first place.   The lesson we are told to learn from prohibition is that we need to be careful not to repeat the mistake in the future.

There is another way to look at the experience.   Prohibition could have been introduced as a short-term rule to refine cultural expectations about alcohol consumption, and in particular to discourage its consumption on a daily basis.  The short term rule was also justified by the urgent demand such as from the anti-saloon league.   As a short term rule, the rule was successful.  We did change our cultural attitudes about alcohol and the majority learned to tolerate alcohol consumption as part of culture.

Prohibition could be an example of a short term rule based on data if they had used data to define the rule.   This is not what happened, of course.  However, I can imagine how we may obtain data about alcohol usage patterns and how that was harming society.   We could also obtain data about the broadly shared dissatisfaction of the current drinking culture.   With that information, the data may suggest a complete ban for 13 years in order to raise a new generation to a new perspective about drinking.

In a modern context, we would have access to a lot more data that may alert us to the sizable minority who will not cooperate with the rule, or of the possibilities of organized crime taking advantage of illegal trade of alcohol.   Perhaps the rule could have been refined to avoid this.   For example, the prohibition may apply only to hard liquor of over 5% alcohol so that beer and diluted wine would remain available.

No matter what the rule actually turned out to be, it would inevitably have some unexpected bad consequences.   Part of the reason for making short-term rules is the recognition that bad consequences are possible.   We may more readily accept a short-term rule because there would be relief from bad consequences when the rule expires.   Meanwhile, we can collect fresh data that will better inform us of those consequences when we consider renewing or replacing the rule.   It is possible we may choose not to replace the rule at all when it expired.   The basic life of the rule would have been the same.  The difference is that we would enter the start of the rule with the certainty of an expiration date instead of the unrealistic expectation that the law would be perpetual (as intended by amending the constitution).

I think a problem with modern law making is that we see all laws as being perpetual.   It takes more legislative effort to remove a law than it is to introduce a new law.   The active decision to end an existing law must effectively argue against the inevitably good consequences of the law even if the bad consequences outweigh the benefits or if the benefits will likely continue without the law.   With short-term rule making, the expiration is automatic.   Continuing a rule requires new action to defend extending, updating, or replacing a rule.   If nothing is done, the rule will cease to apply after its expiration date.

A short term rule-making process can get us over the fear of making another mistake like prohibition.  Short-term rule-making expects that there will be regrets with the rule.  We can tolerate those regrets when we know the rule will expire soon.   As we get new data about the current events, we will have better information to make better rules.   It is better to take advantage of that latest information with a short-term rule than it is to postpone recommendations based on this new data until we are absolutely certain of the risks of bad consequences.    The rules are short-lived and while the rules are in place we will observe new data that will allow us to make better decisions in the future.

Another point about the prohibition is that it was not as effective as we expected.   People who wanted to drink alcohol found ways to obtain it.   On the other hand, many people did cooperate so it was not completely ineffective.   Even if the rule was completely ineffective in terms of changing per-capita consumption of alcohol, it appears to have had an effect in terms of cultural expectations for alcohol.

The effectiveness of prohibition may be comparable to the placebo effect associated with medical practices.   There is some controversy about whether there was any credible evidence of a placebo effect.   For this discussion, I’m referring to the popular notion that placebos can have some effect.   The prohibition law may have been a placebo for society.   People shifted their behaviors to accommodate the law without changing their weekly consumption of alcohol.   They merely consumed alcohol differently.   In addition, the legal enforcement of the law was uneven and largely unenforced.   There was not enough legal resources to prosecute all of the law breakers and there was an acceptance that certain establishments would be left alone as long as they did not operate like the older versions of saloons.   Although the latter is condemned as evidence of corruption, it may have been a realistic approach to the fact that we could could not prosecute and punish everyone who was disobeying the law.

As I mentioned, there is controversy about whether there is any truth to a placebo effect for medical conditions.  I’m inclined to believe there is some placebo effects especially for conditions that involve mental or psychological elements.  A placebo could convince the mind to tolerate some condition to the point of no longer making a complaint about it.   Because sociology is a consequence of psychology, it seems reasonable to expect that there could be strong placebo effects in rules.  We can impose new rules that are noticeably different so that people change their lives around the new rule.   Even if the rule has no direct effect on the underlying issue involved, there could be a benefit in leaving society more willing to tolerate what conditions remain after adapting to the rule.

For the prohibition example, the issue concerned the rate of alcohol consumption that did not change when comparing rates before and after prohibition.  The placebo effect was that society adapted to tolerate something they found intolerable earlier.  That toleration involved shifting the timing and locations of alcohol consumption without changing the quantity of alcohol consumed.   Now, over 80 years after the repeal of prohibition, the majority does not find current alcohol habits to be objectionable.


10 thoughts on “Rethinking lessons from prohibition: illustration of government by data and urgency

  1. The Temperance movement, which led to Prohibition, actually began in the early 1800’s as a religious agenda to impose moral reform on the populace. It didn’t become a governmental concern until WW1, and was meant to conserve resources for the war effort, much like rationing, victory gardens, and recycling efforts for WW2. I believe the women’s suffrage movement was instrumental in the severity of the law.

    If you think about it, the consumption of alcohol in cultures was a necessity because of poor water quality. For example, in Medieval Europe, chamber pots of raw sewage were dumped out of windows into the streets and ran off into various natural water sources, causing epidemics of typhoid, cholera, etc. When I was in France, wine was free with the meal, but you had to pay for water to offset the costs of purification. Or perhaps it was a result of geographical location-water is scarce, so you drink fermented milk, or fermented juices, or fermented grains, or whatever spoiled liquid you have to prevent dehydration.

    My grandparents lived in your hometown. Grandpa was rousted out of bed by members of the mafia one night, blindfolded, and taken to an undisclosed location to repair a broken still hidden away in the woods.

    • I haven’t studied it much at all, but in most historical accounts of life in all areas of society during the 18th and 19th century, alcohol figured prominently as a basic food staple where drinking would start with breakfast and continue throughout the day. Most people were not really getting drunk but they were more lubricated during working hours than people today. Prohibition changed our attitudes to consider alcohol only as a reward for finishing a day or a week or entering a vacation period. Prohibition lives on in terms of disapproving of drinking before or during business or duty hours — and that disapproval exists independent of any laws. Prohibition in some ways was a success despite the fact that it was only temporary and several generations ago.

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