« Humanity and the Illusion of Progress | Main | How Wars can be lost suddenly and unexpectedly »

March 18, 2012

Annals of Persistent Futility

One need not be an economist to understand that only governments can create criminal markets; also that whenever desired products or services are made illegal, a potentially robust criminal market is created automatically. That reality as old as prostitution. The "oldest profession," although illegal in most countries, it exists virtually everywhere. Often responsible for spreading disease, and preyed upon by pimps, customers, and police; its workers may also be protected by the wealth or influence of their clients. Thus prostitution has evolved into a complex, multilevel industry in "advanced" nations. However, even when "decriminalized," a stigma remains, and prostitution's harmful consequences are only mitigated, rather than "cured."

Recent American attempts at prohibition have been directed at two "substances," alcohol and "drugs," which until recently, had not even been thought of as in the same category. Although it was a mainstay of Colonial American commerce, the damage produced by excessive consumption of alcohol led to a Temperance Movement by the 1830s. During the balance of the 19th Century several state prohibition laws were passed, primarily in Midwestern states, but all were eventually undone by smuggling from adjacent "wet" states. That pattern encouraged the Anti Saloon League to adopt Constitutional Amendment as a new strategy in 1893 in the belief that a national law would have a greater chance of success. The Eighteenth Amendment was finally passed in 1918 and went into effect in January 1920; the idea that it would lead to national sobriety quickly proved delusional. Although the failure of Prohibition had been obvious to many from its inception, the federal government has never formally admitted that reality; even after a novel Repeal Amendment passed in 1933. Beyond that, the economic woes of the Great Depression may have helped obscure the historic necessity of Repeal.

Despite its relatively brief duration, the "Noble Experiment" generated several adverse consequences that have become part of American Culture. Perhaps the worst was the transformation of localized crime into a National Industry, one that received another break when the federal agency that should have become its nemesis (the FBI) became controlled by J. Edgar Hoover, a Director whose human weaknesses allegedly allowed the Mafia to blackmail him into denying its existence for decades. Thus the Thirties witnessed the growth of protection rackets, illegal gambling, and union corruption; all of which helped replace the criminal funding lost when alcohol was "legalized" by Repeal.

World War Two added to the Mafia's coffers by adding black markets for goods rationed because of wartime shortages. The power of the mob was also demonstrated by the deal Lucky Luciano allegedly made from his prison cell after the French Liner Normandie mysteriously caught fire and burned shortly after docking in New York.

Thus it's clear that the failed "Noble Experiment" triggered a cascade of adverse long term effects. Ironically, Harry Anslinger, the federal bureaucrats appointed to head the FBN in 1930, benefited from the same tactics J Edgar Hoover used used to protect his FBI. That America's founders would have been pleased by the federal police agencies the two bureaucrats worked protect is as unlikely as it is unknowable.

The surviving American policy of prohibition is expressed as the invidious War on Drugs, now enforced under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Its euphemistic invocation of "control" can't put lipstick on the prohibition pig, no one will mention, nor can it transform its increasingly costly policy failure into a "success."

Whether that reality will be appreciated quickly enough by enough citizens to bring about much needed change is not at all certain; it seems more likely that denial will continue to characterize our species' uncertain future while obscuring recognition of its all-too obvious dangers.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 18, 2012 05:14 PM