Tuesday, January 08, 2013
Writing for Slate, Deborah Blum recounts the "little-told" story of
the Federal government's Prohibition-era alcohol poisoning campaign, which, by some estimates, resulted in the deaths of over ten thousand people.
[T]he numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes," proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.The instincts of a wild beast -- or, more accurately, moral sensibilities that demand meddlesome enforcement of arbitrary rules, human life and any thought about the proper purpose of morality or role of government be damned. I was very disappointed to learn that these atrocities started under Calvin Coolidge, whom I had admired.
As appalling as that is, there's more to this article than meets the eye, but appreciating it requires one to question the propriety of taxation. Blum notes more than once that bootleg liquor, produced to avoid taxes, often results in poisoning. This is because crooked businessmen get into the act of producing liquor, and their incompetence or negligence frequently results in products containing dangerous impurities.
Poisonous alcohol still kills--16 people died just this month after drinking lethal booze in Indonesia, where bootleggers make their own brews to avoid steep taxes--but that's due to unscrupulous businessmen rather than government order.I think Blum, like anyone accustomed to the government taxing everything, lets the government off the hook too easily here.
Certainly, these deaths were not directly a result of government policies, but these policies did make it possible for such people to be in business at all in the first place. Not only is taxation wrong because it violates property rights, it can also endanger the lives of those who try to avoid it. As James Reed might have put it (but only for the rare individual who is aware of the evil of taxation), "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to present a man who simply wants a drink the following 'choices': robbery or risk of poisoning."
The atrocity of taxation is not as dramatic as that of a deliberate poisoning program, but it is no more a proper role of the government.