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Alcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment

The Temperance Movement, Prohibition, Bibliography

The Prohibition "experiment" is periodically cited as a test of the legal control of moral behavior. Implications are then drawn for other areas of morals legislation such as drug use, prostitution, abortion, and gambling. However, this analogy between a historical set of events and the scientific test of a hypothesis is both imperfect and misleading. What can be learned from the history of the legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating liquors" in the United States is neither as exact nor as unambiguous as the results of an experiment conducted under controlled conditions in a well-equipped laboratory. To speak of a "social experiment" in this context is to utilize a poetic metaphor that may deflect attention away from many important consequences and meanings embodied in the events. Prohibition was not undertaken or opposed in the spirit of experiment, nor was it administered as a controlled test of a hypothesis.

An adequate understanding of the implications of Prohibition for the effectiveness of criminalization and legal control cannot be confined to the 1920s. It must go back to the roots of Prohibition in the century-long temperance movement and the subsequent history of alcohol as a public issue in the United States. Context is essential to both action and understanding in human events. The analogy to an experiment is misapplied because it imagines social actions as understandable without a context or a history. It treats Prohibition as if it had a fixed meaning devoid of connotations provided by past or subsequent events.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law