I really don’t like John Green’s content. I don’t know much about the person, but I generally try to avoid the things that he makes because I feel like he has a penchant for being misleading and wrong. My natural reaction to people who are misleading and wrong is to try and correct them, and I don’t have time to respond to the hundreds of things that’s he’s made.
However, I am making an exception for his CrashCourse: The Great Gatsby videos, because he makes a couple of claims that can be judged based on their historical and factual truthfulness, as opposed to his literary interpretation, which I mostly despise, though the reasoning gets very literature-degree-nerdy.
The section in question comes from the second video in the series. Green takes a moment to drink whiskey, and goes on the following rant:
You were crazy. I mean for the rest of American history our Constitution is going to be this weird document that is perfectly normal until the 18th Amendment which suddenly bans alcohol and then the 21st Amendment which is suddenly, like, no, no, terrible idea. It’s almost like legislating morality doesn’t actually increase morality.
But, Prohibition, in you, Fitzgerald found the perfect metaphor for American hypocrisy and debauchery, we are not very good at tolerating naughtiness in America, but we love being naughty.
In short, Prohibition you were a terrible idea but a fantastic metaphor, so, thanks for that.
So, his smugness, and aesthetic concerns for the Constitution aside, there are two claims which can be tested in this statement.
The first is “legislating morality doesn’t actually increase morality.”
The second, “Prohibition . . . [was] a terrible idea.”
Let’s tackle the first one first.
The nice thing about treating alcohol control as a form of enforced morality is that we have a well-studied modern analog: The War on Drugs.
A basic economic principle is that if you restrict the supply of an item, the price increases and fewer people will buy it. A rise in price is a necessary outcome of making something illegal. As Vox reports “prohibition multiplies the price of hard drugs like cocaine by as much as 10 times.” Additionally, some people who would have otherwise tried drugs are deterred by the legal factor that is in play. Another expert in the above-linked Vox article suggests that “legalization could lead hard drug abuse to triple.”
While we can say with some certainty that putting drug laws in place won’t eliminate drug use, the evidence does suggest that you can still significantly reduce the consumption of drugs, which is a positive outcome.
So, while you might not be able to legislate in such a way that you make people change their moral beliefs, you can influence their behavior for the overall betterment of society. That’s something that might look identical
What about the claim that Prohibition was a failure?
Well, as you might have guessed from the previous section, whether it was successful or a failure is dependent on how we judge it.
For instance, I could tell you that the American Revolution was a failure because it didn’t free any American slaves, restore the Emperor in China, or build a railroad across Africa. And of course, you would respond that none of those things were objectives of those fighting the war. It would be unfair to judge their success or failure on benchmarks other than the ones they set.
I don’t know exactly why John Green thinks Prohibition was a terrible idea. Based on context, it appears that he’s fallen into the trap of assuming that Prohibition sought to ban the consumption of alcohol outright on the grounds of moral outrage.
This is untrue.
If we look at the actual wording of the 18th Amendment, we see that this was not the case.
“After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
Manufacture. Sale. Transportation.
It’s worth pointing out that the Volstead Act, which was the law Congress passed that enforced the 18th Amendment, allowed families to make “the equivalent of 1,000 bottles of wine a year, or 2.7 bottles per day for home consumption.” That’s a lot of wine.
Even without researching the motives, we can intuit at least three things from just the above information. First, commercial activity surrounding alcohol was prohibited, but not consumption. Second, wine was okay. Third, other types of alcohol were not.
One of the big groups behind Prohibition was the Anti-Saloon League. According to Oklahoma State University, “[i]t was not uncommon to find one saloon for every 150 or 200 Americans, including those who did not drink. Hard-pressed to earn profits, saloonkeepers sometimes introduced vices such as gambling and prostitution into their establishments . . .”
Just looking at saloons alone tells us a lot about the motivation behind Prohibition. Banning the sale of alcohol, as well as the production of whiskey and beer, which were the two big sellers in saloons, means that saloons will close and take prostitution and gambling with them. One stone, three birds.
And, just to give a modern comparison, there are 44,229 Subways in the United States. In order to reach the same density per capita as saloons pre-Prohibition, there would need to be more than 2 million Subways!1
Jack Blocker points out that alcohol also constituted a public health crisis before Prohibition, with deaths caused by liver cirrhosis accounting for 15 per 100,000 people, and deaths from chronic alcoholism as high as 10 per 100,000. Since liver transplants hadn’t yet been invented, there was little that could be done from a medical perspective for heavy drinkers. And Prohibition had long-lasting effects. Blocker writes that “[a]lthough annual consumption rose [after the repeal of Prohibition] . . . it did not surpass the pre-Prohibition peak until the 1970s. The death rate from liver cirrhosis followed a corresponding pattern.”
And yes, morality was one of the defining factors behind passing Prohibition, but it would be overly simplistic to suggest it was the only one. Again, consumption wasn’t banned, though excess consumption was justifiably targeted. People were dying, and saloons, with their noxious gambling and prostitution problems, were closed.
Given that this appears to be what those who passed Prohibition were trying to do, then based on the results, it would be hard to label Prohibition a failure, unless, like John Green, you just might like your alcohol too much.