“… and the Insight to Know When You Have Gone Too Far”

The title being a snippet of the Irish Proverb: “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.” Why that title? Well on Monday of this week it was the 17th, better known as St. Patrick’s Day. We all know St. Paddy’s Day (anyone else notice the push back at “St. Patty’s” day this year that I have not noticed previously?) is named after Saint Patrick who reputedly led the snakes out of Ireland and we all know the festivities that occur on St. Paddy’s Day.

This year I decided to do a bit of interweb searching to see what more there was to know about the day and while nothing was revelatory it was a reminder of a few bits of info that I hadn’t thought about in some time. The primary point that came back to me being that the excesses associated with St. Patrick’s day have a lot to do with the timing of the day, that being in the middle of Lent; where the prohibitions of the six week observance of Lent are lifted for one day and revelry ensues. It is that excess that occurs on St. Patrick’s day that made me think that the day is really a testament to the fact that prohibition policies are ineffective and poor public policy in most circumstances when they are applied to marginal products or activities. It was a Monday, this qualifies as deep thought on a Monday morning!

The most well known example of a prohibition policy being the prohibition on alcohol which was in place in the United States from 1920-1933, a policy that failed after a short time and gave rise to organized crime and bootlegging (but was a significant boon to the Canadian economy). Before prohibition was put in place in the U.S. the rise of temperance movements in that country had no less than John Stuart Mill targeting prohibition policies in his seminal work On Liberty. There is an excellent essay on the topic of Mill and prohibition in the Independent Review entitled: John Stuart Mill and the Liberty of Inebriation (go past the first page) in which the author states: “On Liberty is a seminal anti-prohibition text, which assumes ever greater importance and relevance when considered in the context of today’s $19 billion war on drugs.” For Mill liberty included:

the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of thought and
feeling, absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practi-
cal or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological . . . liberty of tastes and
pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing
as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impedi-
ment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm
them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or

Studies done near the end of prohibition in 1932 and used by Mark Thornton in the following article labelled prohibition a failure as per capita consumption of alcohol had actually been decreasing prior to prohibition, rose during prohibition. That same study cites Richard Cowan’s Iron Law of Prohibition which states: “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes.” the same author also published, The Economics of Prohibition” which utilizes charts and formulae to illustrate how prohibition decreases supply while increasing demand causing the price of the product in question to go up with an excellent economic analysis beginning on page 73. In short and simple terms: supply decreased, demand the same or rising, prices up which results in searches for close substitutes or criminal activity to meet demand combined with the Iron Law leads inevitably to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

With St. Patrick’s day being within hours of the news of Medicinal Marijuana licensees having their licences revoked on March 31st in Canada it struck me as quite ironic that the news broke so near to a day that stands as a testament to the fact that prohibition as a policy is designed to fail.

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