Review: The Art of Suppression

The prohibitionist has become all too ubiquitous in our life. Chris Snowdon's latest book traces this trend in meticulous historical detail with measure of good entertainment

Have we learned nothing from the prohibition?
David Atherton
On 10 December 2012 10:47

On December 9th, the Mail on Sunday reported that the Commons Select Home Affairs Committee will be recommending the setting up of a Royal Commission into the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. Apparently, it views prohibition to be a failure.

Perhaps it’s fate then that I had intended this week to recommend The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800 by Chris Snowdon to read while working your way through a bottle of port this Christmas.

I often cite Chris Snowdon in my articles – a graduate of Lancaster University and a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and Institute of Economic Affairs. From that you can probably infer he is not overly keen on state interference. You may have caught him last week on the major news channels after he did an exhausting round of TV and radio interviews on his paper: The Minimal Evidence for Minimum Pricing. The fatal flaws in the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model, which he co-wrote with statistician John Duffy.

Snowdon’s latest book is the story of how the prohibitionist has become all too ubiquitous in our life, tracing the resulting failure of proscription and the unintended consequences which exacerbate the status quo. When the government bans a drug, for example, a more potent equivalent is invented. What current politicians have shamelessly failed to learn from history is the blueprint of Alcohol Prohibition in America. Indeed, as teetotal prohibitionist JD Rockefeller wrote in a letter in 1932:

“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.” 

Snowdon not only offers meticulous historical detail in The Art of Suppression, but also manages to entertain us in parallel. It was interesting to read about the opium wars with China, for instance. The British state, wanting to redress a balance of trade deficit with China, turned to opium to get the current account arrears from red back into black. What I find remarkable is that opium does not seem to have been a major social problem worldwide and it was only in Edwardian times that laws were finally enabled.

But the final chapter of Snowdon’s volume is simply outstanding; not only in the arguments for liberalisation but how in practice it could be implemented. He also notes how prohibition has been used to justify racism towards the Chinese, African-Americans, and Mexicans, and how, in the absence of racial stereotypes, people still need to demonise a section of society with epithets such as ‘filthy smoker’, ‘binge drinker’, and ‘selfish gluttons’.

The addiction to banning is best summed up by Herman Trent of the Anti-Saloon League. Writing on May 20th, 1916, in Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle (three years before Prohibition was passed), Trent gave an interesting insight into the fun-loving banning mindset when he said:

“If I had my way I would not only close up the Saloons and the race tracks, I would also close tobacco shops, confectionary stores, delicatessen stores and other places where gastronomic deviltries are purveyed – all low theatres and bathing beaches. I would forbid the selling of gambling devices such as playing cards, dice, checkers and chess sets. I would forbid the holding of socialistic, anarchistic and atheistic meetings; I would abolish the sale of tea and coffee and I would forbid the making and sale of pastry, pie, cake and such like trash.”

As Snowdon observes, “Utopia is only one ban away”. With this in mind, The Art of Suppression is an important and compelling read not only for us but the Royal Commission too, should David Cameron keep his nerve.

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveAtherton20

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