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ObamaCare could go way of Prohibition

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A blow to the gut tends to be mightier when delivered by the fist of unintended consequences.

In 1923, five years after the implementation of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that effectively banned alcohol, Americans felt disillusioned with Prohibition. None of the grand promises of what would follow its passage had come to pass — not even close.

Drunkenness and spousal abuse had increased, as had crime in general; the cost of federal and state government had grown at a pace no one foresaw, and respect for the law at all levels had largely evaporated.

Those and other effects of Prohibition contradicted every reason given for enacting the constitutional amendment.

The economic impact on Main Street was strikingly harmful as well: Breweries, distilleries, hotels, restaurants and pubs closed, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. Those losses were compounded by cutbacks in industries that supported those businesses, such as truck drivers and skilled tradesmen.

State tax revenues suffered immensely; before Prohibition, excise taxes from liquor sales had funded many state budgets.

On the federal level, billions of dollars in tax revenue also were lost, just as millions of dollars in new costs arose to enforce the law.

The amendment and the accompanying Volstead Act (the federal law that enforced Prohibition) were riddled with loopholes; the amendment banned the sale, transportation or manufacture of spirits, but it did not outlaw possession or consumption of alcohol.

Because of that, a cottage industry of crime was born out of the “great noble experiment.” Although the law was intended to stop Americans from drinking, enterprising people found ways to turn fruit-juicers into wine kits, to “cook” gin in their bathtubs, and to buy distillery kits in hardware stores — all of it illegally.

Corruption among law enforcement officials exploded, and great gobs of cash changed hands for them to guard speakeasies or to look the other way from bootlegging operations. Gangs, syndicated crime and the Mafia expanded to an unprecedented degree.

Prohibition was a movement whose roots were pioneered by Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Rush, followed by a false start before the Civil War, and it picked up again during the Progressive Era, according to historian David Pietrusza.

“Both parties were greatly split with factions of ‘wets' (those against Prohibition) and ‘drys' (those in favor of it),” Pietrusza explained.

“A major part of the Progressive reform movement, it was ushered in overwhelmingly by the influential Protestants,” said Eldon Eisenach, emeritus political science professor at the University of Tulsa. “I think that the mobilization of the immigrant vote in the 1930s and disenchantment with enforcement did Prohibition in.”

Today we have a law, not a constitutional amendment, also ushered in by a progressive movement — albeit a very different movement, yet one still pushed forward with its own noble, moral purposes in mind.

Just like Prohibition, ObamaCare promised from its onset to change the world: It would provide universal health-insurance coverage at a lower cost without any reduction in coverage choices or quality care, and all of it easily accessed through a government website.

So far it has been nothing short of a disaster.

It is not lower in cost (premiums for many middle-class purchasers are double those of their current plans, with deductibles tripling), nor is it easily accessed. It has been riddled with exceptions and loopholes benefiting federal employees, labor unions and big businesses.

It also has chipped away at our economy: Many companies are reducing full-time staff to part-time hours, in order to skirt ObamaCare's mandate that employers provide health-insurance coverage to employees who work 30 or more hours per week.

ObamaCare can be amended easily enough despite its being “the law of the land,” as President Obama loftily proclaims in rejecting Republican demands to repeal, revise or delay it. In fact, rewritten and revised laws are the normal course of legislative history and, over time, odious parts of many laws are often removed.

The critical lesson here is twofold: Be cautious of resolutions that frequently wind up being worse than the problems they set out to fix, and remember that our laws are no place for grand experiments, moral or otherwise.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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