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Today’s document is a letter to Joseph P. Kennedy from Leonard E. Read dated October 25, 1947. The letter is short and simply informs Joseph Kennedy to take a look at one of Henry Hazlitt’s articles. Sadly we do not have the enclosed article but, since Leonard Read mentions that it is “just off the press”, it might likely be Hazlitt’s “The Drive Against ‘Gambling’,” from October 20th 1947, in Newsweek.

Joseph Kennedy is, of course, most famous for being the father of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, but a close second is known for taking part in the notorious trade in which he (possibly) made his family’s fortune; namely bootlegging alcohol during the Prohibition.

Alcohol prohibition is largely considered a failure today and for good reason; see for example, Douglas Roger’s review in the Freeman of Daniel Okrent’s fantastic book Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The negative consequences of America’s noble experiment stretched far and wide. The quality of liquor went down, potency went up, and as result the emerging black markets created environment of secrecy, corruption, and violence, etc. The 18th amendment even bred contempt for the law, which led many to refer to the 1920s as the lawless decade.

Kennedy’s story, however, shows that not everyone found prohibition to be so bad. Many, like Kennedy, gained greatly from the temperance movement’s ploy. These bootleggers, rumrunners, gangsters, and others operating in the black market not only didn’t find the law a disadvantage but also openly supported it, even financially. This is what Bruce Yandle referred to as the bootleggers and Baptists theory of regulation. All regulation is supported not just by those who viewed as moral, but also by those who stand to gain at the expense of others.

Prohibition transformed the market for alcohol into a violent and dangerous trade by weakening property rights and driving its activities underground. Supporters of various prohibitions today, such as the prohibition of drugs and tobacco, should learn a lesson from this story. We must, as Frederic Bastiat warned, look at not only what is seen but also what is unseen. Sure people are gaining from these laws, but is this at the expense of everyone else? We need to ask whether these laws are achieving the real desired ends or helping to line the pockets of some while harming many others. Lets face the facts, just like alcohol before, drugs have not gone anywhere and violence has increased. No matter what your feelings on such substances are, there must be a point where you step back and say, “this is just not working and not worth it.”

*This post is dedicated to my very good friend and colleague Douglas Rogers. The world has been robbed of a great mind. Doug’s work on organized crime was an important part of seeing the unseen effects of all prohibitions. He was also a passionate teacher of economics and advocate of liberty. I feel wealthier for having known him and I am sure I’m not alone.

Nicholas Snow
Nicholas Snow

Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.