Good intentions and the road to hell

Saint Bernard, the 12th Century Abbot of Clairvaux in France, is cited as saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Legislators often forget (or ignore) this saying when they introduce regulation and legislation, often as a knee-jerk reaction to some perceived problem.

Regulation is often the result of good intentions: the apparent need for legislators to send moral messages and to save people from themselves and their own choices.

A stark example of ill-considered regulation is from America’s attempt to prohibit alcohol in the early 20th Century. Urged on by the Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League, who perceived alcohol and drunkenness as a national sin, the United States banned the production, movement and sale of alcohol. Within minutes of prohibition taking effect in January 1920, armed criminals started raiding warehouses to steal whiskey.

Americans discovered that there was a big difference between using the law to prohibit something and actually enforcing that prohibition. The illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol boomed. Criminal gangs expanded, corruption blossomed with police and politicians being paid to turn a blind-eye to various profitable, illegal activities.

As Mafia-style gangs expanded, so did their criminal activities, including prostitution and gambling. Al Capone was estimated to be earning $60 million a year from his criminal operations.

As the profit of criminals went up, revenue to the government decreased significantly. Washington State University estimated that in 1914, the government income from alcohol tax alone was $226 million. Rather naively, it was believed that the reduction of revenue from alcohol would be offset by increased sales of soft drinks. This never happened.

Alcohol production had been a big business in America, with factories and large workforces employed. Overnight these factories closed and thousands of workers were made unemployed. The negatives significantly outweighed the positives and prohibition itself was abolished 13 years later.

The lessons from prohibition do not seem to have been learnt. The UK’s Misuse of the Drugs Act 1971 has not prevented the large scale misuse of drugs. It has allowed untaxed and unregulated substances to be consumed by vulnerable people. The State of California estimates that it could raise $643million annually following its recent legislation of recreational cannabis. However, in the UK, drug supply is now often just one source of a vast income enjoyed by high-level criminal organisations.

Nobody would suggest that it would be wise for crack cocaine to be freely available to be consumed by all. But generally speaking, governments need to trust their citizens to do the right thing.

Emmie Lowes is runner-up of the Under-18 category of the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.