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Shall We Have Prohibition?

Reflections on the efficiency of banning alcohol

Figures can't lie—but liars can figure”; and never was this moss-grown old saying better illustrated than in the incessant, voluminous and highly emotional debate over the merits and de-merits of prohibition which has been waged without cessation since 1919. Never have so many statistics been adduced in support of anything as have beenused on both sides; and never have they been more grossly and patently unreliable and inaccurate.

We are told, for example, by the wets that the wildness of youth is the result of prohibition; yet England, where there is no prohibition, has a wild youth movement quite as serious as our own. The drys point to increased savings bank deposits as an indication that the abolition of the saloon has rescued the working man from misery. But our currency is still so much inflated that a 50 percent increase in volume over the pre-War period would mean no real advance, and the growth of deposits beyond this may well be due, and probably is, to the better economic position of labor in general during the post-War period. Those who oppose prohibition argue that it has made the country turn to whiskey and gin, and away from such milder tipple as beer and wine. Yet on the continent of Europe, where anyone may make his choice as freely as ever, there has been in recent years an enormous movement in the same direction. Attempts to link prohibition with the increase in crime are equally un-scientific, as is evidenced by looking at the growing amount of the latter in the United States prior to 1919. The degree to which drinking has been diminished since the Volstead act is another matter as to which no reliable evidence is available. Nearly everyone who has looked into the matter at all carefully is of the opinion that there is much less of it than before, but the clement of possible error in any such calculation is obviously great. The day is still far distant when we can make any really accurate summary of the benefits and evils of this, one of the most extensive and interesting social experiments in the history of mankind.

In the meantime, some highly illuminating sidelights on the whole question are contained in a 30,000-word study by the Research Department of the Federal Council of Churches, made public this week. While it does not pretend to be final and definite, it is much the most careful, comprehensive survey of the matter which, so far as we are aware, has yet been made anywhere. In addition to tapping the usual and familiar sources of information, the authors of this inquiry sent an elaborate questionnaire to 2,700 social workers all over the country, of whom one-tenth replied. They also investigated many “family case work” records showing conditions among that submerged portion of the population which is forced to appeal to municipal or private charitable organizations for aid.

That prohibition enforcement reached a maximum effectiveness in 1920-21, and has been declining since, is perhaps the most important of the conclusions drawn in the report. On the other hand, figures for 1924 and those incomplete ones avail-able for 1925 indicate that the tide may be about to turn again. These investigators believe that prohibitions is more effective among the working class than among wealthier individuals. They report that there is undoubtedly a marked increase in disregard for law, and for authority in general, among young people. Drinking is one of the ways in which this attitude is reflected, but they do not believe that prohibition is primarily responsible.

Statistics on deaths from alcoholism are a less reliable guide than those on cirrhosis of the liver, the report points out, since the figures in the former instance include numerous cases of actual poisoning, from bootleg liquor, while the latter disease is produced by steady drinking. The cirrhosis deaths, which reached a high point of more than 13.5 per 100,000 population in 1911, declined slowly but steadily to 12 in 1916. Thereafter the figure shrank rapidly until the beginning of 1919, when it was only 8. It still declined, but more slowly, through 1919, reaching in 1920 the lowest point of all, not much more than 7. The rate increased somewhat during 1921-22, to about 7.5, and decreased again almost to the low mark during 1923. Subsequent figures are not available. The decline from 1916-1919 was of course mainly due to the War. However, at no time during the prohibition era have the deaths attained more than two-thirds of the 1910-11 average.

This record undoubtedly must be read in the light of a general improvement in health, during the same period of time. People have learned in recent years, aided by the propaganda of the life insurance companies and other agencies, to take better care of themselves than formerly. Both gluttony and excessive drinking had been going out of fashion for at least a generation before 1919. The abandonment of liquor has not been accompanied by an increase in drug addiction, as is often charged. The report quotes with approval a survey showing this, made by the Foreign Policy Association, which has already been summarized in the New Republic; and adds the sensible comment of its own, that drugs are even harder to get than alcohol, and therefore would certainly not be made a substitute when the latter became scarce.

Several other popular suppositions are shown by this study to be fallacious. The authors declare that the total of smuggled liquor is only an insignificant proportion of the present consumption; that New York is not conspicuously wetter than other parts of the country; that the production of wine grapes in California, instead of having enormously expanded, was actually smaller by 50,000 tons in 1924 than in 1919. There has been an increase in table grapes, but this is explainable on other grounds. There is no doubt that a great deal of “sacramental wine” has been made and sold for ordinary consumption, but the total increase is believed to be not greater than 40 percent.

The report condemns in the strongest terms the general attitude in the past of the federal authorities, accusing them of having been less than half-hearted in their attempts at enforcement. Of Secretary Mellon it says frankly that he has never believed in prohibition himself and has conspicuously, failed to furnish that leadership in efforts at enforcement which, under the law, his official position requires. It adds the interesting comment that he “has a mandate from business to guide the financial policy of the country in what are said to be safe channels,” and confines himself strictly to this task. The greatly increased effectiveness of the federal government's anti-smuggling efforts in recent months is itself sufficient indictment of the previous futile attempt. Particularly pointed are the accusations against members of Congress for insisting for their own political purposes that prohibition enforcement officials should not be under the civil service. Political patronage, says this survey, 

is a curse to prohibition enforcement just as it is in every department of the government. If the prohibition agents are presently placed under the civil service it will probably remove one of the major difficulties of enforcement—a difficulty which is inherent in the law and is not chargeable to its administration. It is an unhappy commentary upon our political life that it should have been considered necessary, in order to secure passage of the national prohibition act, to exempt from the civil service and turn over to political patron-age a large portion of the staff upon whose ability and integrity the success of the law depends.

Looking over the whole field, in the light of the 'decreasing effectiveness of prohibition since 1920, the authors of this report frankly admit that a crisis has been reached. They regard two elements as necessary to the success of prohibition: genuine enforcement not only by the federal but by state and municipal authorities, and a body of public opinion which supports such enforcement. They deny that prohibition was “put over” on the country “while our soldiers were in France”—pointing out that while only nine states had gone dry prior to 1914, twenty-three more did so during the next four, years. However, they believe that the country is not facing frankly the dangers of the present situation; and that those who are interested in seeing the experiment succeed must take upon themselves the burden of seeking to create the atmosphere of respect for law which is a sine qua non for cutting down the amount of drinking to the irreducible minimum, whatever that is. This atmosphere is not to be produced, of course, by passing more laws, or by an increased display of Puritanical bigotry, but by a return to, and successful use of, the proselytizing zeal which once existed.

We agree with the authors of this report that prohibition will not be effective until the opinion of the community is strongly behind it, which is certainly not the case at present even in those parts of the country where dry sentiment was strongest prior to 1919. We gravely doubt, however, that it will be possible to bring back the old crusading spirit. In our judgment the attitude of the country toward enforcement is the result of a complexus of forces which go far deeper, and are more important than, the mere division of opinion as to whether the consumption of alcohol is desirable. That complexus of forces grows out of the whole present tendency of our civilization, as accelerated by the War. Even under the old conditions, it would have required perhaps a quarter of a century to bring about so drastic an alteration in the habits of mankind. As things are at present, it may take even longer, or the experiment may in the end prove unworkable. But in either case, the pious sentiments of those who are the spiritual successors cf the W. C. T. U. and the Anti-Saloon League will have little to do with the result.