Thursday, 17 March 2022

Prohibitionists, then and now

I've reviewed a new book about Prohibition for the Critic. It's called Smashing the Liquor Machine and the twist is that the author sides with the prohibitionists. It's a good work of history in many respects but I disagree strongly with some of its central claims.

Central to his thesis is the claim that prohibitionists were not illiberal because they never sought to stop people drinking; they merely wished to destroy the “exploitative liquor traffic” and, above all, the saloon. For Schrad, this is a crucial distinction because, he argues, restricting commercial activity was not viewed through the prism of liberty at the time and should not be viewed as such today. The crusade was not against drinking but against “predatory capitalism, of which the liquor traffic was the most insidious example”.

Why should we judge prohibitionists by their words when we can judge them by their actions? If, as Schrad argues, Prohibition was really about “regulating capitalist excesses” and “opposing exploitation and profit”, why was home-brewing banned? If the Anti-Saloon League was only concerned with saloons, why didn’t the 18th Amendment simply ban saloons and allow alcohol to be sold in shops and restaurants? If prohibitionists did not object to people drinking in the privacy of their own home, why did they fight so hard for the Webb-Kenyon Act which banned the interstate sale of alcohol by mail order? Schrad insists that the latter was not “some nefarious attempt to erode individual liberty to drink” but that is exactly what it was.

When asked why he robbed banks, the Prohibition-era criminal Willie Sutton is reputed to have said “because that’s where the money is”. Prohibitionists went after the saloons because that’s where the alcohol was. They went after the booze industry because it made booze. The whole point of “smashing the liquor machine” was to stop people drinking liquor. Enforced sobriety was not an unfortunate side effect of Prohibition. It was the whole point.

Prohibitionist broadsides against the liquor traffic were not purely rhetorical. The Drys genuinely hated the drinks industry and you did not need to be a teetotaller to deplore the way some saloons operated. But the rhetoric served another purpose. If left-wingers believed, as Schrad does, that “the actual battle lines of prohibition weren’t between religion and drink, but capitalist profits versus the common good”, it was obvious whose side they should be on. In the same way that modern public health activists shout about “Big Tobacco” and “Big Soda” when campaigning for lifestyle regulation, fury at the liquor barons helped obscure the reality that it was their fellow citizens who were the quarry. The campaign for Prohibition showed how easy it is to get people to sacrifice liberty if they believe that faceless corporations will suffer more.

Do read it all. Perhaps I'll write a book called The Smashing Liquor Machine?
The cancer of prohibitionism is alive and well, as this news from Denmark reminded us this week...
Denmark considers ban on cigarette sales to anyone born after 2010

Denmark has unveiled plans to ensure that future generations are tobacco-free, and is considering banning the sale of cigarettes and other nicotine products to anyone born after 2010.

“Our hope is that all people born in 2010 and later will never start smoking or using nicotine-based products”, health minister Magnus Heunicke told reporters.

“If necessary, we are ready to ban the sale (of these products) to this generation by progressively raising the age limit,” he said.

Note that e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and every other nicotine product are slated to be included in the ban. It's a reminder that anti-smoking fanatics will only tolerate vaping as a stopgap on the way towards a nicotine-free world. Many of them won't even tolerate it as that. 
Needless to say, there is no moral or economic argument for prohibiting adults from using nicotine. In the case of vaping and nicotine pouches, such coercion cannot even be described as paternalistic. It is just pigheaded, fanatical bullying.  

Speaking of fanatics, the corrupt and incompetent World Health Organisation is "very likely" to refuse to authorise the only effective Covid vaccine to have been developed in Canada. Why? Because it is derived from the tobacco plant and Philip Morris has a minority shareholding in the company that developed it. Have you noticed that 'public health' is not really about health yet?

Finally, the UK House of Lords is trying its old trick of crowbarring one of ASH's pet policies into an unrelated Bill. This time it's the 'tobacco levy' on 'Big Tobacco', an unworkable idea because the UK can't impose a windfall tax on companies that are not based in the UK so it will end up being yet another sales tax on cigarettes (as HMRC explained years ago)
Apparently, peers voted 213 to 154 for the government to consult on this scheme, so thank goodness for people like Claire Fox:

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