Topic for discussion: was Prohibition the Progressive movement's *greatest* disaster?

Having been reminded that today (January 16th) is the anniversary of one of the greatest social policy disasters (if not the absolute worst) in American history:


…I am left to wonder: was it also the greatest policy disaster of the Progressive movement? Because, let us be honest here: Prohibition/temperance was a Progressive scheme from start to finish. The popularity of it among rank-and-file Progressives at the time is well known, and only surprising to those who have not received an adequate enough education on the subject*.  But was it the worst Progressive policy ever?

  • Arguments for yes: Prohibition, of course, resulted in a decade-long exercise in societal hypocrisy where a large section of the population routinely broke the law – and the more affluent parts of said population easily evaded the legal consequences from doing so.  We also, again of course, managed to encourage the rapid growth of organized crime in this country by giving them the opportunity to make a ridiculous amount of money from acquiring and disseminating an illegal substance… and as soon as Prohibition was over, that existing infrastructure went right into branching out into other illegal drugs with nary a hiccup.  Finally – and this is not trivial, actually – domestic beer quality dropped catastrophically; a dropt that it took us almost a century to recover from.
  • Arguments for no: Well, let’s see.  There was the income tax. There was the direct election of Senators.  There was the drastic increase in the size of government that resulted from the previous two points. There was the entire institutionalized racism** thing – oh, yes, Woodrow Wilson was acting in perfectly Progressive terms, in no small part to the entire eugenics thing***. All in all, when you compare Prohibition to widespread segregation and dubious genetic policy… the mere banning of the sale of alcohol can appear to be, and forgive me for saying it, rather small beer.

I think that you can make an argument either way, honestly. What does everybody else think?

Moe Lane (crosspost)

*Which, admittedly, probably means ‘most people.’

**Which, by the way, was even more widespread than you might think.  Unless you happen to have Italian, Irish, Polish, or Jewish ancestors who came to the United States before about 1930 or so. In that case, you probably have any number of family stories to ensure that I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know.

***I give Salon(!) credit for tackling the subject, but the ugly truth of the matter is that, absent World War II, the eugenics movement would have probably been a viable concept in American political discourse right up to the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement.  And wouldn’t that have been a mess.


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