The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 11, 2013

Unintended consequences

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— The law of unintended consequences is an adage, or idiomatic warning, that an intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

Although many of us like to refer to Murphy’s Law —  anything that can go wrong, will go wrong — unintended consequences have been with civilization since the first man looking for food went up behind a saber-tooth tiger and shot an arrow into its rump — and just hacked the big cat off. Someone had a meal, and it wasn’t the man.

History is rife with examples of unintended consequences.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan’s military attacked the U.S. Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, winning what they thought was a great victory. Just the opposite occurred, and they eventually were shot and bombed into near oblivion.

Adolph Hitler thought he would be smart, breaking a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and attacking the Russians early in World War II. It just hacked off millions and millions of Russians. The result: Stalingrad, Hitler’s greatest defeat and the greatest battle ever fought on this planet.

Perhaps nothing in American history can rival the ill-fated law passed by Congress in 1918 that forbade alcohol on this continent — Prohibition.

At the outset of the 20th century, temperance organizations — designed to eliminate or moderate the use of alcohol by the public at large — were active in most states. By the year 1916, more than half of the states had statutes prohibiting alcohol, and in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting its sale and manufacture.

The so-called Volstead Act, approved Oct. 28, 1919, clarified the law — “Beer, wine or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors with more than one-half of one percent alcohol by volume, was banned.

Owning items designed to manufacture alcohol was illegal and fines and jail sentences were set for violating Prohibition.

All well and good.

The fly in this Victorian-style ointment was the fact this nation was founded upon liquor.

Farmers who settled America used portions of their crops to make strong spirits. President and Founding Father George Washington was one of the foremost distillers of whiskey in the late 1790s on these shores.

Strong spirits were ingrained in the fabric of society and consumed in large quantities.

Religious leaders of the day — and virtually every day up until Prohibition — railed against the evils of whiskey, which had wrecked and continued to wreck lives and families.

Yet, the 18th Amendment was fatally flawed by history. It did not prohibit the actual drinking of liquor. Since the 18th Amendment didn’t go into effect for a full year after its passage, people bought up cases of then-legal alcohol and stored large quantities. Also, alcohol could be prescribed by what was known as a “good doctor” (wink, wink).

And, this soon brought the height of unintended consequences.

Before Prohibition, crime in America was small-time, with no organization to speak of.

All the Volstead Act did was cause a new breed of gangster to evolve, when savvy criminals noticed the amazingly high level of demand for alcohol in all corners of society.

Since the common American citizen — unless they were able to set up a still on some remote section of the continent — had an extremely limited avenue to obtain whiskey or beer, smart criminals saw a vast avenue to fulfill this need. It was the ultimate in capitalism gone bad — huge demand and limited supply.

Al Capone, one of the most famous gangsters in Chicago, along with Italian, Jewish and Irish mobs in New York and across the East Coast, began a lucrative profit in providing something to the American people woven into the fabric of America from the first days Europeans set foot on these shores.

Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s hired men to smuggle in rum from the Caribbean or hijack whiskey shipments in Canada and bring them to the United States.

They would buy up large quantities of liquor from homemade stills, and set up secret bars — speakeasies — for people to come in, drink and socialize, and in fact, invented the first night clubs on these shores.

Prohibition was a nightmare for the government to enforce, and once again proved the old adage that it is virtually impossible to legislate morality.

Prohibition was a major factor in the rise of America’s organized crime. It provided the initial capital for vast criminal empires, which still exist today.

Lasting nearly 14 years, the law of unintended consequences killed it, and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933 — becoming the only amendment ever to have been repealed.

Interestingly, Oklahoma’s Legislature failed to take action, and was not one of the 36 states ratifying the 21st Amendment.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid