Alcohol consumption is a problem. According to Boston University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, the availability of alcohol is directly associated with increased violence and death. For instance:
And that's just scratching the surface of the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Around 10,000, people die each year due to drinking-related automobile accidents. Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions. Easy access to alcohol, and the negative externalities associated with it, are a massive burden on society.
In recognition of these facts, the United States ratified the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which specified that the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited." To enforce this Amendment, which went into effect on 17 Jan 1920, Congress passed the Volstead Act. While it was still technically legal to own and consume alcohol privately, the ban on producing or importing alcohol largely rendered this technical legality immaterial, since alcohol couldn't be acquired legally. (Though there were personal exceptions for making one's own wine or cider.) In addition, some states banned the private possession of alcohol, too.
Of course, we all now remember how Prohibition ended alcohol consumption, crime fell drastically, the other negative externalities simply disappeared, and America became a healthier, happier place.
Oh. Wait. We don't remember that, because what we got was bootlegging, the flourishing of organized crime, the St. Valentine's Day massacre, home-made moonshine stills, speakeasies, and all the rest. In addition, prior to the 18th Amendment, approximately 14% of all tax revenues were produced from the alcoholic beverage trade. Losing this source of revenue put a serious crimp in government budgets. The collapse in demand for grains and other agricultural products for brewing and distilling reduced revenues for farmers. What was supposed to be a national solution to the problems associated with alcohol became, instead, the source of many other problems associated with alcohol prohibition.
The Prohibition experiment ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed both the 18th Amendment (the only Constitutional Amendment ever to be repealed) and the Volstead Act. Prohibition was considered a failure.
In many cases, we judge policies by their intentions, rather than their results. Since the late 1960s, the US government has implemented a vast array of anti-poverty programs, spending trillions of dollars in the process. How well have those programs worked? Well, in 1970, the poverty rate was 12.6%. In 2021, the rate was...12.8%. For 50 years, despite the best of intentions, poverty in the US has remained stable.
Since 1980, despite the decades-long war on drugs, the percentage of Americans who have used illegal drugs rose from 6% to 13% in 2019, despite widespread acceptance of the drug war by most Americans.
I could go on and on, with any number of policy decisions, but you get the idea.
The intentions behind a public policy are irrelevant. It doesn't matter how good it sounds, or how heartfelt the emotional attachment to it is, reality determines if a policy has been a success, not intentions. It doesn't matter how well-intended a policy is if it's ineffective.
Unfortunately, public policies, once implemented, attract institutional constituencies such as NGOs or charities with a vested interest in the policy, as well as individuals and politicians who resist any change to the policy, no matter how ineffective, because of the intentions it expresses. This emotional or financial attachment prevents policy reform, and ensures that ineffective policies can't change.
The road to hell, it is famously said, is paved with good intentions.
What we often forget, both in government policy and in our personal lives, is that, as economist Thomas Sowell once said, there are no solutions. Ever. No problem is, or can be, permanently solved. There are only trade-offs. Every decision we make, no matter how small, has costs and benefits. Every choice has a price.
We often imagine a world in which, if we do X, problem Y will disappear. That usually isn't true, because doing X will cause unintended problem Z, which we now have to deal with. We often call this the Law of Unintended Consequences.
In the case of Prohibition, it's true that many Americans were forced to stop drinking, which reduced many externalities of alcohol consumption. It's also true that new problems, such as a decline in agricultural demand, the rise of violent crime, and the loss of government revenue appeared almost overnight.
The simple fact is that there are no cost-free solutions to any problem. Every decision we make is trade-off between one desired state of affairs and another. This is a universal truth, and it's especially true in the area of public policy, where, at any given moment, local, state, and federal governments have a limited amount of money, personnel, equipment, and other resources.
We often think of the US government as having exorbitantly high levels of budgeting and spending, and in the aggregate, it is an enormous amount of money. On the other hand, we expect the government to do a lot of things with that money. In 2021, 73% of total federal spending went to mandatory payments for things like to Medicare, Medicaid, and payments on the national debt. Of the remaining 27%, we expect the government to run a justice system, manage the currency, pay for government worker salaries, provide unemployment benefits, talk to heathen foreigners (and, failing that, sending an army to kill them), oversee the production and safety of food and drugs, maintain a system of national parks, and...well, the list goes on and on.
More money for national parks means less money for defense or justice or safety regulation. The list of things we expect government to do is, sadly, nearly endless, while the resources to do those things is limited.
But that's only the first level of trade-offs we have to consider. We also have to address the second level trade-offs—the unintended consequences—that accompany these decisions. Here's a few examples.
In the 1960s, a deinstitutionalization movement started lobbying for the reduction or elimination of hospitals for the mentally ill on the grounds that institutionalization was a violation of rights, and mental facilities were underfunded, and patients were simply being warehoused and abused. The discovery of anti-psychotic and other drugs also meant that patients could manage their conditions without permanent hospitalization.
So, by the early 1980s, most mental hospitals were closed in favor of community and outpatient treatment. Homelessness immediately began to rise as a) community treatment centers were not well-funded and patients were not well-supervised, and b) mentally ill people, as it turns out, can't always be trusted to make rational decisions about managing their own medication. Now, it's estimated that as much as 25% of the homeless are mentally ill.
And speaking of homelessness, an additional 26% of the homeless are addicted to illegal drugs. Back in the 1970s, we decided that drug abuse was a problem so serious, we needed to prosecute drug users as criminals, rather than providing medical and psychological treatment. The government asserted that eliminating drug abuse was the moral equivalent of war. We even called it "The War on Drugs". Since then, it's been difficult for a street drug addict to find help, but easy find a cop that will arrest them and throw them in jail. That's really not help. So, avoidance of prosecution has forced additional tens of thousands of drug addicts into homelessness and avoidance of the criminal justice system.
The problems of homelessness, drug addiction, or mental illness can never be "solved". That's true for every policy problem we might want to address, no matter how hard we might try. There are no permanent fixes, no policies that won't have unintended consequences. There are only trade-offs—analyses of costs and benefits that point us towards some amelioration of a problem without creating even worse ones. (And, of course, we don't know what we don't know, so it's almost impossible to foresee all of the unintended consequences that might arise from a proposed policy.)
The best we can do is realize that intentions are irrelevant and solutions don't exist. We live in a world of trade-offs and results, no matter how much we might like to believe otherwise. Sentimental attachments to permanent solutions and good intentions don't matter.
As I've written previously, only truth—reality—matters. And reality doesn't care much about whether we like it or not. Reality just...is.