Prohibition didn’t seem frivolous at the time—if the comparison to abolitionism seems bizarre today, that should tell us something about how difficult it is to make accurate historical judgments when we are engulfed in debate. Campaigners who talked about death and destruction weren’t being hyperbolic: alcohol kills and destroys. To find a contemporary analogue, we should look at our most bitter and divisive political disagreements: the abortion wars, or—especially recently—the ongoing arguments over gun regulation. The country seems to be living through a gun-violence epidemic, even if the statistics are more complicated than the headlines suggest. (There are about thirty thousand gun-related deaths per year in America—and about ninety thousand alcohol-related deaths.) Now, as then, people are accused of defending the indefensible—after all, there is no good rationale for the consumption of whiskey, although there are plenty of good occasions—and people on the other side are accused of misjudging what government can and should do. The lesson of Prohibition is not that every grand crusade is a mistake; it’s that, from zero feet away, it can be difficult to tell the difference between an idea as bad as the Eighteenth Amendment and one as good as the Nineteenth Amendment—or, as the example of Gerrit Smith illustrates, the Thirteenth. We can be sure that there are neo-Prohibitionists among us today, intent on making things better by making them worse. But we can’t be sure who they are.
Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power”, The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 110.