“Well, since we all know Prohibition failed….” This assertion is widely taken as the starting premise to many discussions on such modern social issues as prostitution, drugs, and gambling. In reply, the advocate of enforcing moral norms through the law must either explain how his plan differs from Prohibition or else admit defeat. In fact, the reliability of this premise is so widely taken for granted that even raising the question of whether or not it’s true rings absurd. But if a thing is both widely held and true, there shouldn’t be any real danger in exploring to verify it, right?
Of course, the fact that an opinion is widely held does not always guarantee truth. Most Americans believe that the people of Columbus’s time thought the Earth was flat. Sadly, they don’t realize this myth sprang from anti-Catholic propaganda and was cemented in the 19th Century by two unreliable histories and Washington Irving’s fictionalized account of Columbus. Even common sense would tell you that lesser-educated people in a society (sailors) are unlikely to risk everything on some novel academic hypothesis. They knew the Earth was round (you’d have to be a special fool not to grasp the meaning of a horizon), they just didn’t know how big it was. Columbus thought he had reached the “West Indies” because he didn’t know the Americas existed, thinking that the Earth was perhaps only 10,000 miles around.
Another widely held myth is that the colonists came to America because they wanted to establish a land of religious pluralism. The reality is that most of them came here to flee cultures they viewed as too corrupted in order to establish more rigorous religious societies than those they left behind in Europe. This is why so many early states had explicit religious identity. (“Mary”land was Catholic and surely no one thinks Puritans were renowned for their lax ideas about public morality and religion.) It’s also why it was so necessary to have a First Amendment and the Constitutional ban on religious test oaths: not to protect Muslims, but to insure that the Federal Government wouldn’t squelch the States’ devout religious identities.
So is it possible that the failure of Prohibition could be yet another widely held historical/political myth? Well, it seems that two questions need to be answered. First, what were the harms of Prohibition? Second, what, if any, benefits came from it?