Monday, 7 June 2010

History does rhyme

Further to this and this, Johann Hari reviews a book on Prohibition and draws a parallel with today's prohibition of drugs, one that 'hangs over the book like old booze-fumes—and proves yet again Mark Twain's dictum: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."'

How did it start? Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions:
...a coalition of mostly well-meaning, big-hearted people came together and changed the Constitution to ban booze. On the day it began, one of the movement's leaders, the former baseball hero turned evangelical preacher Billy Sunday, told his ecstatic congregation what the Dry New World would look like: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent."

Not so much. As it turned out, there was...
...a massive unleashing of criminality and violence. Gang wars broke out, with the members torturing and murdering one another first to gain control of and then to retain their patches. Thousands of ordinary citizens were caught in the crossfire. The icon of the new criminal class was Al Capone, a figure so fixed in our minds as the scar-faced King of Charismatic Crime, pursued by the rugged federal agent Eliot Ness, that Okrent's biographical details seem oddly puncturing. Capone was only 25 when he tortured his way to running Chicago's underworld. He was gone from the city by the age of 30 and a syphilitic corpse by 40. But he was an eloquent exponent of his own case, saying simply, "I give to the public what the public wants. I never had to send out high pressure salesmen. Why, I could never meet the demand."
By 1926, he and his fellow gangsters were making $3.6 billion a year—in 1926 money! To give some perspective, that was more than the entire expenditure of the U.S. government. The criminals could outbid and outgun the state. So they crippled the institutions of a democratic state and ruled, just as drug gangs do today in Mexico, Afghanistan, and ghettos from South Central Los Angeles to the banlieues of Paris. They have been handed a market so massive that they can tool up to intimidate everyone in their area, bribe many police and judges into submission, and achieve such a vast size, the honest police couldn't even begin to get them all. The late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman said, "Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempts at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one."

It's far more moral to support drugs' legalisation than their continued prohibition, a point underscored by a 'nasty irony':
One insight, more than any other, ripples down from Okrent's history to our own bout of prohibition. Armed criminal gangs don't fear prohibition: They love it. He has uncovered fascinating evidence that the criminal gangs sometimes financially supported dry politicians, precisely to keep it in place. They knew if it ended, most of organized crime in America would be bankrupted. So it's a nasty irony that prohibitionists try to present legalizers—then and now—as "the bootlegger's friend" or "the drug-dealer's ally." Precisely the opposite is the truth. Legalizers are the only people who can bankrupt and destroy the drug gangs, just as they destroyed Capone. Only the prohibitionists can keep them alive.

So why did Prohibition end?
After the Great Crash, the government's revenues from income taxes collapsed by 60 percent in just three years, while the need for spending to stimulate the economy was skyrocketing. The U.S. government needed a new source of income, fast. The giant untaxed, unchecked alcohol industry suddenly looked like a giant pot of cash at the end of the prohibitionist rainbow. Could the same thing happen today, after our own Great Crash? The bankrupt state of California is about to hold a referendum to legalize and tax cannabis, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out that it could raise massive sums. Yes, history does rhyme.

I wonder how radical those LibDems could be if they really put their minds to it?


Sean said...

What a great idea, to pay the Chinese their money back we 'should shoot ourselves up' to fill the exchequer, Rhyme or irony Garth?

Billy Sundays idealism runs a lot deeper than first thought, Hari seems to have picked up the torch and stares stary eyed into the flame.

worm said...

judging by the economic doom and gloom that Cameron is telling us to expect, I reckon now might be a good time to start nurturing a really spectacular heroin dependency

Brit said...

I think we need to start viewing prohibition as the 'experiment', not legalisation.

I was speaking to a copper about this the other week and the conversation was infinitely depressing. Will explain at length later.

malty said...

If booze is off the list, I am off the island, in the mid fifties a sort of beer was available, proprietary spirits were like rocking horse dung, malt whiskey? do me a favour. There were alternatives, worse than moonshine, ROL whisky (Rare old Liquor) tasted like boiled ferret droppings.
If the people police ban or severely restrict consumption, they are nuts. The Norgies had it, controlled by price (as in how much, ouch) didn't work, bunch of alkies, more stills in Norway than there are in Kentucky.

Anonymous said...

junky scum, sort yourself out before the rozzers do you.

Vern said...

The interesting thing about this argument is that it also recasts an incident in the history of the British Empire- usually regarded as deeply shameful- in an entirely different light. The Opium Wars become an enlightened effort by the British to end the repressive and counterproductive prohibition the Chinese government had placed upon the free consumption of opium by their people. Even if our motives were at base about profit, the deregulation must have been for the benefit of the Chinese in the long run as prohibition never works. Even if the Qing Emperor begged to differ, he was clearly in the wrong. Rule Britannia, as Johann Hari would say.

Gaw said...

Sean: Has someone spiked your Bakewell Tarts?

Worm: There are limits to patriotism.

Brit: But banning them seems so much more natural doesn't it?

Malty: I'm sure you're right. If people want to binge they'll find a way to do so.

Elb: But I'd go to pieces without my two glasses of Beaujolais a night...

Vern: Ingenious thinking. Though I'm not sure we'd welcome the legalisation of coke if it were imposed upon us by the Colombian navy.

Anonymous said...

Many Chinese wanted opium, it was their Emperor and his ministers- none of whom were elected, all of whom represented an extremely inequitable, tyrannical despotism- who were preventing them from getting bombed. Apparently they believed this had a detrimental effect on society. Thus our ancestors- who evidently understood better- were liberating the common folk to enjoy the pleasures they desired, and as prohibition never works it was surely for the best in the long term, even if it required us to over rule the will of an absolutist monarch (who was himself a foreign interloper from Manchuria whose ancestors had conquered the Han Chinese.)

Rule Britannia, etc.

Gaw said...

...and isn't the other defence that opium had many medical uses too? Rule, etc.