Irving Fisher on Prohibition

by on April 5, 2013 at 7:12 am in Food and Drink, History, Law | Permalink

Here is one typical passage:

We see from the papers that Prohibition in Norway was given up. Do you know what Prohibition was in Norway? It allowed drinks containing 21 per cent alcohol! The people were so disgusted with the results that they overthrew this “Prohibition.” The heavy drinkers wanted their “personal liberty”; they did not want to stop at 21 per cent. It is easier to stop at one-half of one per cent than at 21. This is the lesson of experience.  The only thing to do is what they did in Kansas – to tighten it up whenever there is an attack on Prohibition. The whole strength of the opposition consists in saying, “It can’t be done; it doesn’t work”; it is not that the object is a bad thing, but that it does not work.  Now the more you tighten it the better it will work, and the more you loosen it up the worse it will work; and therefore the more you will have the very conditions that led to the overthrow of such Prohibition as they had in Norway and Ontario. In Ontario they originally allowed 2.2 per cent beer, then they “loosed up” and allowed 4.4 per cent and now they have loosened up still further.  Experience shows that there is never a stable equilibrium at midway points and never any permanent solution of the liquor problem in a wide-open policy. The only stable equilibrium and permanent solution lies in the utter extermination of the liquor traffic.
The link is here (jstor), with a hint of Albert Hirschman on the rhetoric of reaction of course.  Fisher was perhaps America’s greatest economist and one of the country’s greatest progressives, but on these conclusions I do not agree, preferring to side with what Fischer scornfully refers to as “personal liberty.”

Roy April 5, 2013 at 7:51 am

My parents met and lived in Kansas in the 1960s, I have known many people of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents generation from Kansas, and I can tell you absolutely that prohibition never worked liked Fisher suggests, Carrie Nation notwithstanding. Fisher’s little magnum opus “Prohibition at its Worst” is full of legendarily suspect statistics compiled by temperence campaigners. You can find the full book online rather easily and I assure you it is a hoot, as they say in Wichita.

Irving Fisher was also a big proponent of eugenics, and an impressive racist. I am looking forward to future posts on this topic because of the wonderful comments these sorts of things generate around here.

Rahul April 5, 2013 at 8:30 am

An amusing (sad?) tidbit from Wikipedia: “[Irving Fisher] believed that mental illness was attributable to infectious material residing in the roots of the teeth, recesses in the bowels, and other places in the human body, and that surgical removal of this infectious material would cure the patient’s mental disorder. Fisher believed in these theories so thoroughly that when his daughter Margaret Fisher was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Fisher had numerous sections of his daughter’s bowel and colon removed at Dr. Cotton’s hospital, eventually resulting in her death”

So Much for Subtlety April 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm

In fairness there is some evidence that schizophrenia is caused by infectious material. Not that cutting someone’s stomach into little pieces seems a sensible response, but until the liquid cosh came along what other treatments could he have chosen? Surgical operations on the colon seem about the most humane choice for the period.

anon April 5, 2013 at 9:17 am

Although he sounds like a fascist, fascists can still do good math.

http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Fisher.html

Roy April 5, 2013 at 9:43 am

Oh Fisher was brilliant, it is just that like a lot of brilliant people, he was deluded into thinking his being brilliant meant all of his beliefs and conclusions were perfectly correct. He also was one of God’s own totalitarians.

But no matter how good you are at math, when your data is bad it is not going to turn out well, and Fisher’s data came from true believers who had a long history of fabrication and manipulation of data.

anon April 5, 2013 at 11:33 am

like a lot of brilliant people, he was deluded into thinking his being brilliant meant all of his beliefs and conclusions were perfectly correct.

This ties in nicely with his being the “first celebrity economist”

Like many celebrities, he was deluded into thinking his being famous meant all of his beliefs and conclusions were perfectly correct.

So Much for Subtlety April 5, 2013 at 8:18 pm

Actually the Nazis were very strong among German mathematicians. They did some very good mathematics indeed. However Fisher was a liberal. Which is not surprising because in the “third camp” of people who were neither Conservatives or Liberals, there was often a lot of over-lap. Teddy Roosevelt had a lot of the same interests as Hitler for instance. Doesn’t make him a Nazi though.

Roy April 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

A link to the article not using GMU’s library is here

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1809554

Andrew' April 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

Burdening the innocent IS not working.

collin April 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

Are there any papers that calculate the economic benefits of ending Prohibition? Ending Prohibition in 1933 (and from all opinions not quick enough) happened at the same time as the Glass-Stengel and ending the Gold Standard, so the early-FDR economic turnaround is ususally attributed to the above changes and not Prohibition.

However, I suspected with the opening of new markets, Prohibition had a great positive effect on the 33 -36 economic turnaround.

JWatts April 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

Prohibition had a great positive effect on the 33 -36 economic turnaround.

It certainly had a positive effect on police personnel life expectancy and tax revenues.

Wil W April 5, 2013 at 9:16 am

I have always wondered how issue such as the usefulness of alcohol outside of drinking was handled in the probation. We make our own vanilla extract for example, and that takes a high proof alcohol.

Lemon April 5, 2013 at 9:26 am

Mouthwash is also high alcohol, and its production apparently continued through Prohibition. Growing up I still heard stories of great-grandpas who would drink Dr. Tichenor’s.

Rahul April 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

Some applications were denatured. Others had a bonded warehouse with permits, tracking, audits etc.

Doesn’t mean diversion didn’t happen.

msgkings April 5, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Some Jewish wine makers were still allowed to make wine for Passover, and still others for the Eucharist. I believe many of them made plenty on the side bootlegging extra inventory.

So Much For Subtlety April 5, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Jewish wine makers made wine for the Eucharist? Don’t tell they baked the little wafers too!

America still denatures alcohol when it is used for non-drinking purposes. That certainly applies to things like camp fire spirits but I think it also applies to mouthwash and the alcohol used in toothpaste. Look at the list of ingredients and see if it has something that starts with an “SD”.

Ray Lopez April 5, 2013 at 9:19 am

I think Fischer anticipated Keynes–his theory of why the Great Depression occurred, due to lack of demand, was written before Keynes 1935 seminal work; also you can say FDR and Hoover’s implementation of stimulus to increase demand (or rather, keep prices high, which was of course flawed but works to the same end) anticipated Keynes. So Keynes synthesized other’s ideas already in the air: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” – Keynes, projecting himself as a practical man and slave of Irving Fischer. BTW, GM Robert J. Fischer was also a pioneer in his field.

Brock April 5, 2013 at 9:23 am

And lets not forget how the Federal government “enforced” Prohibition in part by poisoning industrial alcohols, killing thousands of Americans:
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2010/02/the_chemists_war.html

Or how the Prohibition of drugs today is driving the militarization of police and SWAT teams, and funding terrorism in Latin America, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Some people abuse drugs. Other people abuse television. That’s never an argument for taking away the tool. It’s the people that’s broken. Fix them.

Tom T. April 5, 2013 at 10:01 am

“…and never any permanent solution of the liquor problem in a wide-open policy.”

The issue being what one defines “the liquor problem” to be, of course. And it’s unclear to me why that would be a task for an economist.

Andrew' April 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

The interesting part is the bifurcation.

A. Heiss April 5, 2013 at 10:19 am

Here is Fisher on eugenics: “if the birth-control exercised by individual parents could itself be controlled by a eugenic committee it could undoubtedly become the surest and most supremely important means of improving the human race. We could breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.”
Fisher, Irving. 1921. “Impending Problems of Eugenics.” Scientific Monthly 13:3, pp. 214 –31.

I guess even “America’s greatest economist” can fall hostage to a pseudo-science.

JWatts April 5, 2013 at 10:36 am

I guess even “America’s greatest economist” can fall hostage to a pseudo-science.

Is this really pseudo science? Isn’t it just a Utilitarian argument/plan, where an ‘expert’ committee is overriding the wishes of the individual for the greater good of society.

NPW April 5, 2013 at 11:06 am

Seriously, is it a pseudo-science? Selective breeding works in most species, right? Why wouldn’t it work in humans?

This isn’t to say we should have a controlled breeding program, just that I don’t see why breeding humans to produce certain results couldn’t be done.

I know some physics, but biology was just too much rote memorization for me. I’ve only read the Wikipeadia explaination of eugenics. I see the moral issues, but not the scientific ones.

Andrew' April 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm

As economics it is pseudo-science. You don’t really get to define someone else’s mere existence as a negative externality on you.

NPW April 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Ok, fine. But couldn’t I predict that if I breed a group of humans to be good at math, running, or green eyes, that I would get a higher incidence of that trait than the general pop?

I get the knee jerk reactions due the the -isms and the moral issues, but I don’t get the hate on the science.

Just basic biology, is it not?

It is true that just cause we could doesn’t mean we should, it is not true that just cause we should not, it is false. I think too many anti-science positions are a result of not understanding this.

Hoosier April 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm

How do you define ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’? That’s where the hate comes from.

NPW April 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Defining fit and unfit has nothing to do with its science.

Rahul April 5, 2013 at 2:45 pm

@NPW

I’ll try (speculating):

(a) Human life cycles are longer than the typical plant bred. Would sure be harder.

(b) Pea plants don’t plot and react back to attempts to weed them out.

(c) We don’t yet know exactly what percent of “fitness” is nature versus nurture nor mutation.

If Einstein had been bred against Marie Curie would we have gotten ourselves a Feynmann?

NPW April 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm

(a) Human life cycles are longer than the typical plant bred. Would sure be harder.

But not impossible. How does how hard something is to do alter whether or not it is science fact?

(b) Pea plants don’t plot and react back to attempts to weed them out.

Same as (a). Selective breeding still would work if done, right?

(c) We don’t yet know exactly what percent of “fitness” is nature versus nurture nor mutation.

What does this “fitness” have to do with anything? If I want more green eyes, are you saying breeding organisms with green eyes with others with green eyes won’t get me more green eyes relative to the general pop?

Secondary, does it matter whether it is nature or nurture for something like math or sports? To excel one usually needs both. Take professional athletes for example. They talk about hard work, and I’m sure they do, but without the right genetics they would not get to where they are now either.

If Einstein had been bred against Marie Curie would we have gotten ourselves a Feynmann?

This is similiar to the question I’m asking. If 10,000 Einsteins/Marie Curie couples produced children, would they have more Feynmanns than 10,000 normal couples?

I think the answer would be yes.

FC April 5, 2013 at 10:25 pm

I just did.

Oh snap!

charlie April 5, 2013 at 11:45 am

Wow, he invented ZMP workers? And Maryland drivers?

anon April 5, 2013 at 12:28 pm

fascists can still do good science.

yang April 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Typical ruling class progressive trash.

FredR April 5, 2013 at 1:20 pm

You can see Irving Fisher debate Prohibition with a less academic crowd here: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Forum-1929may-00257.

The opponents of Prohibition had a decent strategy: just act like all the cool people knew it was ridiculous. You can see in the dialogue evidence for the theory that Prohibition made drinking much more of a high-status practice than it previously had been. But in the end I suppose it was government greed for taxes that killed prohibition, just as it is leading today to universal legalized gambling.

Andrew' April 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

So, it’s even sketchy with cars, just arrest reckless drivers, but before cars what was up with demon rum?

Mark Thorson April 5, 2013 at 6:18 pm

A lot of that was probably wife-beating. Prohibition, women’s sufferage, and anti-prostitution laws all came in at almost the same time, supported by largely the same organizations such as the WCTU.

Alexei Sadeski April 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm

“The only stable equilibrium and permanent solution lies in the utter extermination of the liquor traffic.”

Wat

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