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Temperance and Progress

July 12, 2010

Have I found a new enemy in the annals of history?  I’ve often considered the profound effect that our current era will have upon my future perception of politics.  The current obsession with deficit spending and tax policy is something that I doubt will ever leave me — I already have an unhealthy fixation with the worthlessness of earmarks even though they constitute a seriously minimal part of our budget, and I doubt that’s likely to get better going forward.  Thus, my new old enemy?  The temperance activists of the pre-Prohibition era.  Alex Tabarrok directs me to some helpful passages from Daniel Okrent’s Last Call:

By 1875 fully one-third of federal revenues came from the beer keg and the whiskey bottle, a proportion that would increase in the years ahead and that would come to be described by a temperance leader in 1913, not inaccurately, as “a bribe on the public conscience.”

…it would be hard enough to fund the cost of government without the tariff and impossible without a liquor tax. Given that you wouldn’t collect much revenue from a liquor tax in a nation where there was no liquor, this might have seemed like an insurmountable problem for the Prohibition movement.  Unless, that is, you could weld the drive for Prohibition to the campaign for another reform, the creation of a tax on incomes.

Just makes you furious, doesn’t it?  Now, I know there aren’t as many that are willing to criticize history as I.  Nobody wants to go around denouncing things like the Missouri Compromise because they a) they weren’t around for the debate at the time and b) there’s nothing they can do about it now.  I, on the other hand, only subscribe to the former: I won’t criticize Bill Clinton’s presidency because I was not a politically informed person at the time, but I will certainly take LBJ to task for the creation of Medicare (I’m on the record, by the way, as a proponent of its inception being The Worst Idea Ever).

But first, before I start arguing with people who have been dead for quite a long time, I’ll offer you this caveat from Tyler Cowen:

The lesson to be found amid the scofflaws and scoundrels and anecdotes is that, even if they were ultimately on the wrong side of history, temperance forces were far more sensible than we have come to believe. Today so many drugs and addictive substances are illegal or require medical supervision, yet alcohol is consumed relatively freely. Why the difference? Commentators are passionately for or against drug legalization, but after reading and pondering Last Call I came away with a new understanding. Every society has some legal and socially acceptable intoxicants. Cocaine prohibition continues where alcohol prohibition ended, in part because cocaine users are easily caricatured and demonized as either spoiled yuppies or violent gang members. It’s also easier to get a little bit drunk than a little bit high on crack. So alcohol, despite its well-documented destructiveness, survives as the focal, available, and acceptable intoxicant.

If you want to legalize or decriminalize other drugs, you need to think through more than the liberty-based arguments for individual choice and the economic arguments against black markets. You also need to consider whether drug dealers and users will ever achieve enough social respectability to support a change in regime.

Good question.  Personally, I think we’d all be a lot better off if people who enjoyed smoking pot were willing to admit that they smoked pot and liked it.  Perhaps then the social stigma involved would be a little less prevalent and a legalized business would be more socially acceptable, i.e. if pot were legalized it wouldn’t have the effect of simply allowing the people who already control the business — drug dealers — to simply skirt the law more easily.

Still, though: you have to consider what might have been.  Even if temperance forces were more sensible than we like to think, that doesn’t mean they were right.  Okrent even suggests that they may be responsible for the introduction of the income tax into the American fiscal system.  It makes one wonder: what taxes are we paying now that we wouldn’t have to pay if marijuana were legal?  What percentage of income are we forfeiting to pay for the feds’ enforcement of cocaine bans?  It’s supposed to be a conservative principle to tax consumption instead of taxing income, but consider this question: why is it that, for some reason — social conservatism, that is — conservatives are still willing to pay higher income and payroll taxes instead of shifting the burden to potheads and cokeheads who wish to enjoy their product legally?  The question’s obviously not that simple, but it’s still worth a thought.

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