woody_zimmerman_118_2007Ship me somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst.

“Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments, and a man can raise a thirst…”[1]

Thus wrote Rudyard Kipling in an era when some soldiers of the far-flung British Empire (on which the sun never set) thought the “civilized” world had become far too confining. Those soldiers of Empire – any of which could still smoke in public, use narcotic drugs, or carry a firearm, without running afoul of the law – would be aghast at what Britain, Australia, Canada and other bastions of the Commonwealth, not to mention the United States, have become today.

The great English-speaking nations have now become “nanny states” to a considerable degree. All have long since made habit-forming drugs illegal, of course. The USA tried a prohibition on all commerce in alcoholic beverages in the 1920s, too, but later reversed course when the money from the illegal commerce in those products fostered greatly increased crime. Tobacco is still legal, but is now taxed so heavily in some locales that a black market in low-tax cigarettes is under way. (A single pack of cigarettes now costs more than a carton did just 30 years ago.)

On the surface, these have not necessarily been bad impulses in these countries. Narcotic drugs can do a great deal of harm; tobacco as well. It’s pretty difficult to defend any of these with so much of society set against them. In my own case, I can appreciate tobacco in moderation, but I see far too much potential for damage in the use of hard drugs. There is a Russian Roulette or snake-handling feel to them. You never know when they’ll kill you.

The difficulty with making certain commodities illegal, however, is in knowing where to stop. Yes, drugs like cocaine or opium can hurt you. But so can booze, when taken immoderately. This is why temperance societies worked for decades to outlaw it. Traditional, moderate, pleasurable use of alcohol was defeated by the overarching concern that these beverages might harm people. In a great crusade against Demon Rum, America rose up and actually amended the Constitution [2] to make all commerce in alcoholic beverages illegal.

But there is always a downside to radical political actions, and it wasn’t long until Prohibition’s downside became apparent. The plain fact was that Americans declined to forego strong drink just because a “paper was pasted on a wall.” They were willing to pay whichever merchants could offer those beverages. A huge criminal traffic in alcohol quickly sprang up, producing millions in illicit profits for those willing to slake Americans’ thirst. Those profits boosted organized crime into a major force within the USA. Without Prohibition, the Cosa Nostra might have remained a collection of small-time hoods in Italian, Sicilian and Jewish neighborhoods.

Law enforcement was also hopelessly corrupted by the immense amounts of money flowing through the illegal traffic in booze. Many towns, counties and cities deliberately paid their law enforcement people substandard wages on the theory that money from illegal alcohol traffic would augment their pay. Corruption was actually a facet of financially responsible government.

The Temperance Forces realized their costly error by the early 1930s, but it was too late to put the Genie back in the bottle. Organized crime was big, rich, and branching out into other profitable lines of work like labor unions, gambling, prostitution, human trafficking, and drugs. After the repeal of Prohibition [2], organized crime continued to grow and prosper. The damage done by the attempt to ban something we didn’t like could not be undone.

Unfortunately, Americans have short memories and a long (possibly congenital) inclination to ban things that society takes a disliking to. We have not shifted our position on drugs, even though the criminality (and profit) they have spawned are at least as great as from alcohol, and arguably worse. A century-long “war” on these drugs has cost society hundreds of billions (possibly trillions) of dollars in law enforcement, with no perceptible lessening of availability. If you want these substances, you can get them. You might have to pay a high price, but there is no problem with supply. Kipling’s lines about a place where “a man can raise a thirst” sound absurdly dated today. With respect to drugs, at least, that place is the USA.

According to some estimates, 60% of all incarcerations in the United States are for drug-related offenses, and nearly 25% are for mere possession of illegal drugs. Go to the county, state or federal courthouse some morning, and consider the army of policemen, bailiffs, lawyers, clerks and judges you see there – many of them occupied by cases involving drugs. Then try to imagine what all those people would do for a living if drugs simply disappeared as a law-enforcement matter. It’s not hard to see why drugs are likely to remain illegal. The “war” has to continue because the livelihoods of so many people are linked to it. The “war on drugs” is a business.

The flip side of “prohibition” – not noticed by many – was what happened after we undid it. Because Americans have this urge to make “bad” things illegal, we have to agree – at least tacitly – that a thing must be “good” if we keep it legal. After we made booze legal again, we essentially declared it “good” and did little more about it.

Today, we have 15 million alcoholics. Children under 12 are coming to school intoxicated. 43% of all accidental deaths are alcohol-related. Some data show one traffic accident of every two involves alcohol-impairment. Thousands of people are killed every year in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Is this a serious problem? Well, if it isn’t, I’d like to know what a serious problem looks like. Yet little is being done to control children’s access to alcohol. We’re actually tougher on tobacco than on booze. Indeed, most Christians, who once spearheaded the Prohibition drive, think smoking is far worse than drinking. I don’t argue one way or the other. The point is that we have stopped thinking of alcohol as a societal “problem.” It has to be “good” because it’s legal.

Our bipolar attitude on alcohol notwithstanding, our compulsion to make more things illegal – or to tax disfavored things heavily – is growing, not diminishing. At times, I think we simply can’t help ourselves. Almost like addicts, we have to do it. We can’t stop. Not only tobacco, but certain foods are now moving onto the “list” of things that might be outlawed or at least heavily taxed.

This came up recently when we dined with family at a restaurant breakfast that included crisp, delicious bacon. We joked about “bacon speakeasies” possibly being in our future. Someone suggested that at some point we won’t be able to get bacon legally, any longer. But if you knock at a certain nondescript door and give the password, you’ll be admitted to a small establishment whose air will be redolent of ham, bacon, hamburgers and other illegal delicacies. Tough-looking, beefy guys (so to speak) will be standing behind the counter. For $30, you’ll be able to get a bacon-cheeseburger; for $20, bacon with fried eggs (also illegal) and toast. You’ll also be able to buy a “nickel bag” ($5), containing a few ounces of broken bacon pieces in a zip-lock bag.

Seem far-fetched? It always does, until it happens. There is talk of imposing extra taxes on sugared drinks, ice cream, or candy. When a spendthrift president gets in a bind for tax revenue, watch those ridiculous proposals to tax “disfavored” foods bloom like a hundred flowers. If we get government health care, watch those flowers bloom like crazy. (Gruel will be the food of bureaucratic choice for the hoi polloi.)

I already frequent a wine, chocolate and tobacco speakeasy in Northern Virginia. If I disclose the location, they’ll have to kill me. But the password is “fooling around.”

As Yogi Berra liked to say, “It’s déjà vu all over again…”


[1] “On the Road to Mandalay”: Rudyard Kipling; from Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, (1892). Kipling, whose life spanned 1865 to 1936, lived through the twilight of the British Empire. He was born in Bombay, India, and he returned to the orient often.

[2] The 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified January 16, 1919, made all manufacture sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal in the USA and its territories.

[3] The 21st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified February 20, 1933, expressly repealed the 18th Amendment.