Incrementalism, Prohibition & the Realities of Change


Most people share the quality of outrage when they learn of the situations that exist which are an assault on their sense of reason. When such unacceptable situations are exposed to us, we naturally want to change them.

It can be excruciating for many people to tolerate laws or practices that were implemented fraudulently; and completely unacceptable for us to allow them to continue for even one more second, let alone the number of years it takes to bring about an end to the practices.

Some examples of such laws are:

  • Prohibition of Alcohol
  • Prohibition of Marijuana
  • Prohibition of Gambling
  • The Drug War
  • Implementation of Federal Income Tax
  • Illegal Spying on an Innocent Populous
  • Foreign Wars

Each of these laws has a “life cycle”; there are examples of instantaneous implementation of new legislation (which usually turns out to be detrimental; e.g. the Patriot Act). However, in the vast majority of cases it can take years, or decades, for change to occur.

Prohibition of Alcohol

Perhaps the best evidence of this process is exemplified in the prohibition of alcohol; since it has run its life cycle nearly in full. The cycle began in 1826, with the development of an organized “temperance” movement, and grew to maturity in 1920 when the 18th Amendment was implemented, fully prohibiting the sale of alcohol.

Interestingly enough, the growing movement for prohibition played a significant role in the sanctioning of the federal individual income tax. After all, at that time, an estimated 30% to 40% of the revenues to the state and federal government were a result of alcohol taxes; and if the temperance movement were to be successful, a replacement to that revenue would need to be created. Once the 16th Amendment (the implementation of the federal income tax) was ratified, the path was clear and prohibition became a reality.

Most of us know the story of what happened thereafter. As with the prohibition of any product or service that is desired by the masses, organized crime was given the opportunity to fill the void… and fill the void they did. Gangsters like Al Capone became legendary folk heroes for providing the people with the alcohol they wanted. Capone’s mafia was violent and ruthless, but he was loved and gained infamy just the same.

The sad truth is that the event that precipitated the relatively fast reversal of the 18th Amendment (only 13 years later) was not the violence of Capone; and it certainly was not the desires of the people. What really caused the rapid repeal of the 18th Amendment was the onset of the Great Depression, and the resulting reduction of income tax revenues that came with it.

The alcohol tax was a reliable standby, and alcohol was once again legalized in most of the nation.

Incrementalism was a part of re-legalization; as low alcohol beer and wine were legalized first. Then the Volstead Act was revised to increase the permitted level of alcohol in the intoxicating beverages from 0.5 to 3.2%.

Of course, as has been consistent throughout history, government desire for money was the real motivator behind the change. However, FDR gained tremendous popularity for stating: “it looks like we need a beer” – before prohibition was formally repealed.

Prohibition of Gambling

The life cycle with respect to the prohibition of gambling remains fluid. Most legislation regarding gambling has been implemented on a state by state basis, with cursory federal laws making state gambling offenses also federal gambling offenses. As has been the experience with most attempts at prohibition, once government entities were given a share of the revenue, the prohibition was lifted.

Not long ago, legal casinos were only found in Nevada and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Over the last 40 years, however (as states realized the revenue potential of legal gambling) many more states set up legal casinos and lotteries. Gambling is voluntary, it is a personal choice; No one will force another to gamble. Though there have been some changes, this prohibition has taken decades to complete its life cycle; and the process continues.

Prohibition of Marijuana

Marijuana was a crop that was cultivated widely for centuries of American history. Hemp was (and still is) an effective and inexpensive source of paper, rope, canvas, textiles and more. Cannabis was used for thousands of years around the world for pain relief, and the treatment of the symptoms of many maladies.

The prohibition of marijuana is one of the most obvious examples of crony capitalism in our history.

Many of us are aware of the attempts of William Randolph Hearst who was unhappy with the competition hemp provided to his tree based paper production; it was hurting business. He created sensationalist stories about the use of hemp; stories that effectively convinced millions that marijuana was the “devil’s weed”.

Coincidentally, Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was concerned about the elimination of his position as tax revenues dried up during the Great Depression. Anslinger capitalized on Hearst’s “yellow journalism” to create the prohibition we still reel from today. Incidentally, in 1937 the DuPont corporation patented nylon, a synthetic fiber that filled the void after the prohibition of hemp. As recently as 2016, John Ehrlichman (adviser to President Nixon) revealed the true goal of Nixon’s War on Drugs, as referenced in this quote:

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black[s], but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

With all this evidence coming to light, we see how the programming of generations of Americans is slow to change.

Marijuana, a substance which is relatively harmless, remains vilified in the minds of millions. Yet still, the movement towards lifting prohibition is gaining traction. It began with the legalization of medicinal marijuana, and followed with several states legalizing recreational use. There are still limits on the number of plants, along with a myriad other restrictions; but this is representative of the process of incrementalism.  It seems that the common denominator to incremental change allowed by government is always a share of the profits; however, the barrier to long term change is truly a combination of education as well as government getting a piece of the action.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that over 30 million people have been arrested and their futures negatively impacted so that Hearst could sell more paper, Anslinger could have job security, DuPont could sell more nylon, and Nixon could marginalize his detractors.

These facts are so completely disturbing that the people are demanding immediate change, and their demands are just; but they must continue fighting other aspects of crony capitalism as well, fighting the companies that will not give up easily on their revenue… as well as the government. Pharmaceutical companies stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue should the people choose to use medicinal marijuana (a safe and natural alternative that kills no one) instead of chemically produced drugs – which kill thousands of people annually.

Government is happy to share in the profits of legal marijuana, but the cost of financial support from big pharma to their re-election campaigns would be very damaging.

Something important to note: This year, President-Elect Donald Trump is introduction Jeff Sessions as his nominee for the position of Attorney General.

Sessions was quoted in April of 2016, stating: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana”!

So, it seems that the programming continues, and the movement towards lifting prohibition plods along at an unacceptably slow pace. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a drug with no medical benefit, and hundreds of thousands of people are being arrested for possessing it.

Foreign Wars

Most of us are keenly aware that America’s foreign wars do not result in a more peaceful world. Most of us are aware that when we attack other nations, we create more enemies; and most of us want these attacks to stop. Unfortunately, most of us are not elected officials whose campaigns received significant donations via producers of the materials used in war.

To change this pattern (of attacks on foreign shores) requires the election of different representatives.

To change the speed of lifting prohibition requires the election of different representatives.

To change the speed of freeing, and clearing, the unwarranted criminal records of tens of millions of people; victimized by the enforcement of laws put in place to reward those who pay to elect the people that create the laws (for the financial benefit of their contributors), requires election of different representatives.

To stop the destructive effects of crony capitalism, requires the election of different representatives.

To elect different representatives however takes time, and monumental dedication.

People change their opinions very slowly. After a lifetime of being taught that marijuana is inherently evil, evidence is now coming to light which exposes the truth.

Pride is the seventh deadly sin, and the sin of pride is perhaps the main reason that people are not anxious to discount their prior beliefs and teachings; however, working toward the reversal of unjust laws and procedures is highly honorable, so always keep that end goal at the front of your mind.

Unfortunately, an incremental proposal is more likely to be successful in achieving the end game than a proposal which does not take into consideration that: The very people you need to make the change are not likely to receive or support a message that is too far removed from their current way of thinking.

We didn’t create this mess overnight, and we can’t fix it overnight.

If we expect to make these changes, then we need to put ourselves in the place of those we are trying to convince. If we fail to do that, we will never earn the large-scale credibility with the public that is so imperative to make our changes a reality. While I understand, and share the impatience for the correction of these and more truly destructive and unnecessary laws, I also believe that thoughtful presentation to the public is the real key to successful implementation of positive change.

As it stands today, the key to bringing faster onset of positive change is the election of Libertarian political candidates. For this to happen, we all need to stand together and paddle the boat in the same direction.  I encourage everyone to be mindful of this reality, while we fight for the goal of liberty and peace in all facets of our lives.

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Steve Kerbel is a businessman, author, and former Libertarian Party candidate for President of the United States.