Instigator / Pro

Prohibition worked it reduced drinking by a big margin


The debate is finished. The distribution of the voting points and the winner are presented below.

Winner & statistics
Better arguments
Better sources
Better legibility
Better conduct

After 2 votes and with 9 points ahead, the winner is...

Publication date
Last updated date
Number of rounds
Time for argument
Two days
Max argument characters
Voting period
Two weeks
Point system
Multiple criterions
Voting system
Contender / Con

alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928.

Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Round 1
Prohibition failed in that people did not in their hearts even want it, people hate to be told what to do, and i agree with that. the government should turn into your parent only in an extremely compelling crisis that can not be dealt with any other way. 

That said as lax and corrupt as enforcement was people seem unaware that use of alcohol went down  by as much as 50% and the negative health and societal harm done by the abuse of alcohol was similarly reduced. kinda makes you think right?


PROHIBITION was "a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933." [1]

WORKED [past tense of] WORK [intransitive verb] is "to function correctly; to act as intended; to achieve the goal designed for." [2]


Wikipedia suggests:

"When two parties are in a discussion and one makes a claim that the other disputes, the one who makes the claim typically has a burden of proof to justify or substantiate that claim especially when it challenges a perceived status quo.  This is also stated in Hitchens's razor.". [3]

In this case, PRO as instigator and claimant bears the entire responsibility of proof.  

CON interprets the resolution to mean that the 18th Amendment successfully ended the consumption of alcohol in the United States.  Con does not need to show that Prohibition was unsuccessful in reducing alcohol consumption, only refute that Prohibition was a successful approach to substance abuse.


I. Alcohol Consumption

  • PRO claims that alcohol consumption declined dramatically during after Prohibition started in 1920 but fails to note that reliable data on alcohol consumption are not available for the Prohibition period.  As Miron & Zwiebel 1991 confirms:
"It should come as no surprise that accurate data on alcohol consumption during Prohibition do not exist.  Perhaps more surprisingly, there have been few serious attempts to estimate consumption using related statistics.  With the notable exception of Warburton (1932), which has the drawback of being conducted in the middle of Prohibition, we know of no careful attempt to estimate this consumption." [4]
  • PRO bases his claim on a 1989 New York Times opinion piece which repeats several well-worn but but not particularly well-examined statistics:
    • Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929
      • Dills and Miron 2003 faults Warburton for mismatching scattershot cirrhosis data with price data, not accounting for non-Prohibition variables and not reporting that most of the decline took place before Prohibition:
"The correct interpretation of the cirrhosis data is thus that various factors led to a dramatic decline in cirrhosis between roughly 1908 and 1920, especially during the years 1917-1919. There is no evidence that state prohibitions caused this decline, and it is unclear whether pre1920 federal anti-alcohol policies contributed to the decline. Given the persistence of cirrhosis and the low level it had reached by 1920, however, the continued low level during the 1920-1933 period does not suggest a major effect of constitutional prohibition in causing this low level. Instead, our estimates suggest constitutional prohibition reduced cirrhosis by 10-20%." [5]
    •  Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928
      • PRO's source omits Emerson's middle figure showing that psychosis admissions rose by 30% between 1922 and 1928:
"Admissions to state mental hospital for disease classified as alcoholic psychosis fell from 10.1 in 1919, to 3.7 in 1922, rising to 4.7 by 1928"  [6]
    • Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922.
      • PRO's source's comparison of 1916 to 1922 badly distort's Feldman's data which showed a steady increase in drunk arrests after 1920:
"The experience of the next few years will tell whether the trend is toward an increase in arrests for drunkenness above the point of normal pre-prohibition or not.  We do not regard comparison with 1918 and 1919 as fair, but 1920 figures suggest that probably the law was regarded more seriously then than in more recent years, or that liquor was harder to get, or that poison liquor was more of a deterrent." [Feldman, page 367-368] [7]
    •  best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent
      • Based on very preliminary soundings taken in the middle of Prohibition.  Why is a Harvard professor citing 60 year old statistics when better data was available in 1989?  Because the better data tells a far more nuanced story.  Miron and Zweibel found:
"We estimate the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition using mortality, mental health and crime statistics.  We find that alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level.  During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60-70 percent of its pre-Prohibition level.  The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately it pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade." [4]
Alcohol consumption clearly took a big hit in the first year, when the legal distilleries and breweries shut down but within a couple year, more than a decade before Prohibition was repealed Americans were increasingly finding new, illegal methods and venues for liquor and by the mid-20's, all of PRO's statistics- cirrhosis, psychosis, drunkenness all increased significantly and stayed at that level, even after Prohibition's repeal.  That is, just about everybody who wanted to be drinking in the later half of Prohibition had found a way to drink.

II. PRO concedes

  • For R1, PRO offers:
"Prohibition failed in that people did not in their hearts even want it, people hate to be told what to do, and i agree with that. the government should turn into your parent only in an extremely compelling crisis that can not be dealt with any other way."
  • For the reasons elucidated by PRO and many other reasons besides, PRO and CON agree that Prohibition failed.

  • The United States of America has always been a drinking culture-  trading rum for slaves, the Whiskey Rebellion, the role of saloons as a place for politicking, polling, and voting.  PRO's statistics fail to put Prohibition in its context- Mankind had just suffered the worst man-made disaster in human history (WWI) followed immediately by the worst natural disaster in human history (The 1918 Flu epidemic).  Both events disproportionately impacted young men (by long tradition, the greatest consumers of alcohol).  In the US, the constituency that traditionally upheld drinking was dead or severely disenfranchised while women and old protestant moralists enjoyed a temporary increase in influence that was expressed through legislation like the 18th and 19th Amendments (Prohibition and Women's Suffrage) but also the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan.  Further, the liquor and bar industries were overwhelmingly German and Irish institutions and those nationalities were out of favor in the US due to the politics of the Great War. 
"Historians agree that the Klan's resurgence in the 1920s was aided by the national debate over Prohibition. The historian Prendergast says that the KKK's "support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation". The Klan opposed bootleggers, sometimes with violence. In 1922, two hundred Klan members set fire to saloons in Union County, Arkansas. Membership in the Klan and in other Prohibition groups overlapped, and they sometimes coordinated activities."  [8]

  • Prohibition ought not to be seen as some kind correction or reform.  Rather, the US had suffered a terrible tragedy and was looking for scapegoats to disenfranchise.  Prohibition was a particularly unAmerican intrusion into the private lives of our neighbors- a ungenerous spasm from which we soon recovered.  Within a few years, the pain of loss faded, prejudice faded after violence and over-reaction, young boys grew old enough to want a drink and find a way to find it and American normalcy returned.
  • Prohibition has never been an effective means for implementing health reform or preventing substance abuse.
  • Prohibition runs counter to American Federalist, Liberal, and Libertarian traditions.  Democracies like incremental change and may tolerate the occasional sin tax but outright bans tend to bring out the outlaw in the American spirit.  The War on Drugs demonstrates this dynamic ably.  Every threat to increase gun legislation increases gun sales.
PRO's statistics are moldy and don't represent the true history of Prohibition.  No, Prohibition did not work.  Prohibition was a glitch and unsustainable from the very start.  Americans would do well to remember how ineffective such bans have always proved when considering new bans in the present age.

I look forward to PRO's R2 reply.

Round 2

Perhaps the most powerful legacy of National Prohibition is the widely held belief that it did not work. I agree with other historians who have argued that this belief is false: Prohibition did work in lowering per capita consumption. The lowered level of consumption during the quarter century following Repeal, together with the large minority of abstainers, suggests that Prohibition did socialize or maintain a significant portion of the population in temperate or abstemious habits.62 That is, it was partly successful as a public health innovation. Its political failure is attributable more to a changing context than to characteristics of the innovation itself.
Today, it is easy to say that the goal of total prohibition was impossible and the means therefore were unnecessarily severe—that, for example, National Prohibition could have survived had the drys been willing to compromise by permitting beer and light wine63—but from the perspective of 1913 the rejection of alternate modes of liquor control makes more sense. Furthermore, American voters continued to support Prohibition politically even in its stringent form, at least in national politics, until their economy crashed and forcefully turned their concerns in other directions. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that in 1933 a less restrictive form of Prohibition could have satisfied the economic concerns that drove Repeal while still controlling the use of alcohol in its most dangerous forms.
Scholars have reached no consensus on the implications of National Prohibition for other forms of prohibition, and public discourse in the United States mirrors our collective ambivalence.64 Arguments that assume that Prohibition was a failure have been deployed most effectively against laws prohibiting tobacco and guns, but they have been ignored by those waging the war on other drugs since the 1980s, which is directed toward the same teetotal goal as National Prohibition.65 Simplistic assumptions about government’s ability to legislate morals, whether pro or con, find no support in the historical record. As historian Ian Tyrrell writes, “each drug subject to restrictions needs to be carefully investigated in terms of its conditions of production, its value to an illicit trade, the ability to conceal the substance, and its effects on both the individual and society at large.”66 From a historical perspective, no prediction is certain, and no path is forever barred—not even the return of alcohol prohibition in some form. Historical context matters.

Thanks, billbatard, for your rapid-fire response.


In the absence of any objection, PRO has accepted CON's proffered definitions, burden of proof, and resolution.


I. Alcohol Consumption

PRO has failed to engage any of CON's challenges to PRO's source: a 1989 opinion piece relying heavily on some moldy old data.  PRO has failed to establish any long term decline in alcohol consumption while CON has shown that after an interruption of a few years, most Americans who wished to drink and drunk, drank and drunked.

II. PRO concedes

  • For R1, CON interpreted PRO's statement, "Prohibition failed" as concession.  In R2, PRO has not objected.

Rather than reply to CON's arguments, PRO has only cut & paste from Blocker's 2006 study, "Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation"

In the absence of any original argument and only one bit of evidence submitted without explanation or connection to thesis, CON assumes that PRO's concession is more or less in progress.


VOTERS can either read CON's successful, undisputed  refusal of PRO's moldy old evidence falling far short of establishing any sustained decline in alcohol consumption and CON's uncontested personal take on the unAmerican waste of time, money, effort known as Prohibition and agree that PRO failed to prove that Prohibition worked or VOTERS may choose to accept PRO's possibly uncertain concession.

VOTERS may choose to award point to CON for PRO's use of source only as argument- the hamburger helper of fine DART dining.  Or not is also fine.

CON thinks grammar and conduct were fine.  I think billbatard & I both enjoyed this debate within our independent but both rather sad definitions of what fun is.  Some VOTERS like to award concessions with points for conduct against which CON offers no objection here.

Thanks to billbatard for the excellent topic.

Thanks to VOTERS for their kind consideration.

Please vote CON!