Now, I do not mean specifically the 18th amendment and the USA’s disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition, though that does factor into my thoughts. I want to expound on the nature of prohibiting the possession of items through the power of the state. Naturally that would encompass the events around the 18th amendment but the discussion is not restricted to just that terrible idea.
In general society engaged in prohibition when the misuse of an item or substance appears to carry such a heavy communal cost that the state bans the ownership in an attempt to curtail those societal burdens. This was the case with alcohol; the rampant drunkenness throughout the country empowered the temperance movement. It is also the argument, not persuasive in my book, on other drugs and of course on firearms.
Prohibitions perpetual problem is that by its nature it is trying to prevent an occurrence rather than render judgment for one that has already taken place. That means it must ensnare individuals who were never going to incur a societal cost in hopes of preventing those who may. People who drank responsibly and in moderation were equally impacted by the 18th amendment as the drunkards who squandered wages and impoverished families.
Think about it this way; you have two people, John and Bill. John will miss use a particular item or substance but Bill will not. Before you enact prohibition you can only bring the legal system to bear on john after he has inflected his damage, whatever that might be, and as you can never undo the damage, there will always be a cost.
After enacting prohibition you can now bring the legal system down upon John before he does his damage, but you also bring it down upon Bill who has never caused harm and would not have. Bill must face fines, courts, and imprisonment solely because John may present a danger at a later date. Or Bill must surrender his interest in the item or substance simply because John cannot be responsible.
Bill is a real cost created by prohibition. The cost of enforcing it against both is real, the cost to the people ensnared in the legal system is real, and cost to society, particularly if the prohibition, like the one against alcohol or drugs, is routinely flaunted by the populace, is real. This isn’t even the practical enforcement of a prohibition. With the coming revolution of 3D printing soon prohibition will also have to entail forbidding even the knowledge, i.e. the computer files, for making the banned item or substance.
When you advocate for prohibitions think not only about John and the damages he cause, but also about the Bills and ask yourself if it is worth sending him to prison over this?
It might be, the answer is by far not always no, but that is a very real consequence and one too often ignored when people say ‘there ought to be a law.’