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Posts Tagged ‘Prohibition

“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman


As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.


“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water”*…




Americans tend to have a pretty jaundiced view of Prohibition…

… driven by extremists, the country was pushed into an extreme experiment — to ban the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol in the US in 1919 through a constitutional amendment, the 18th. The policy was a political failure, leading to its repeal in 1933 through the 21st Amendment.

There’s also a widespread belief that Prohibition failed at even reducing drinking and led to an increase in violence as criminal groups took advantage of a large black market for booze.

“‘Everyone knows’ that Prohibition failed because Americans did not stop drinking,” historian Jack Blocker wrote in the American Journal of Public Health. He summarized what’s now the conventional wisdom: “Liquor’s illegal status furnished the soil in which organized crime flourished.”

But there’s a lot wrong with these present-day assumptions about Prohibition.

People like [Carry] Nation, as extreme as they were, were driven by real problems caused by excessive drinking, including alcohol-induced domestic violence and crime as well as liver cirrhosis and other health issues. This was perceived as a widespread problem, at least in popular media: George Cruikshank’s 1847 series of drawings, The Bottle, portrayed a father spending all his family’s money drinking and, eventually, killing his wife by attacking her with a bottle. And as historian David Courtwright documented in The Age of Addiction, per capita alcohol consumption increased by nearly a third from 1900 to 1913, largely due to advancements in brewing that helped make beer much cheaper.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the evidence also suggests Prohibition really did reduce drinking. Despite all the other problems associated with Prohibition, newer research even indicates banning the sale of alcohol may not have, on balance, led to an increase in violence and crime.

It’s time to reconsider whether America’s “noble experiment” was really such a failure after all…

America’s anti-alcohol experiment cut down on drinking and drinking-related deaths– and it may have reduced crime and violence overall.  Vox takes a sober look at the an episode in American history clouded in received ideas that may not be altogether accurate, making the case that: “Prohibition worked better than you think.”

* W.C. Fields


As we muse on moderation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (after 30 states had already enshrined the occasion) that Labor Day became a federal holiday in the United States.

labor day

The country’s first Labor Day parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. This sketch appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

source (and source of more on the history of Labor Day)


Written by LW

June 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“You are where your brain is but not where a front-page headline is”*…


Headlines in newspapers, teasers for TV new stories “at 11”– from it’s birth, the press has promoted its wares with précis that pique a peruser’s interest.  The advent of online journalism has only amplified that phenomenon… and to amusing effect.

Jeva Lange illustrates in “A field guide to identifying what website that headline came from.”

* Santosh Kalwar


As we click on the bait, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the 18th Amendment took effect, and the U.S. became dry.  Under 100 years earlier, American’s had been drinking an average of (the equivalent of) 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week– three times the average these days.  A sin tax, levied at the end of the Civil War, moderated consumption a bit– but not enough to satisfy the coalition of women and evangelicals behind the passage and ratification of “The Noble Experiment”– the national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that was better known as “Prohibition”– was ratified.  Prohibitionists had been after a ban for decades before the 18th Amendment went through.  But until the institution of an income tax (in 1913), the federal government depended for the majority of its income on alcohol taxes… so was indisposed to let Prohibition happen.

By the time it was repealed in 1933, organized crime had become a major feature of American city life, and the American public had adopted the invented-for-the-occasion word “scofflaw.”

The Defender Of The 18th Amendment. From Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty published by the Pillar of Fire Church




Written by LW

January 17, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Don’t pay any attention to the critics – don’t even ignore them”*…


It is no surprise that critics and viewers alike agree that The Godfather is the “best film” among the ~2600 films considered on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 100% score among professional reviewers and a 98% score from the audience.  It is perhaps somewhat more surprising to learn which films divide those two groups; thanks to Benjamin Moore, we can contemplate that…

“Overrated” and “underrated” are slippery terms to try to quantify. An interesting way of looking at this, I thought, would be to compare the reviews of film critics with those of Joe Public, reasoning that a film which is roundly-lauded by the Hollywood press but proved disappointing for the real audience would be “overrated” and vice versa.

To get some data for this I turned to the most prominent review aggregator: Rotten Tomatoes

On the whole it should be noted that critics and audience agree most of the time, as shown by the Pearson correlation coefficient between the two scores (0.71 across >1200 films).  [But] using our earlier definition it’s easy to build a table of those films where the audience ending up really liking a film that was panned by critics:

Here we’re looking at those films which the critics loved, but paying audiences were then less enthused:

Explore an interactive version of the chart at the top of this post here; and read more of Moore’s methodology and findings here.

* Samuel Goldwyn


As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1932 that New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker”s “We Want Beer” parade was held. Prohibition was in it 12th year; and while that abstemious regime intended to end alcohol consumption, it had succeeded simply in pushing into speakeasies and other illegal settings.  Government officials like Walker watched as gangsters got rich, while city and state tax coffers shrank. (The blow had been softened at the Federal level by the introduction of an income tax.)

Walker positioned his “legalize and tax beer” pitch as a stimulus package:  increased tax revenue would mean more jobs.  And in the depressed economy of the times, the argument resonated : an estimated crowd of 100,000 marched, pining not only for a cold one but also for for employment and an end to the violence and corruption borne of Prohibition.  Similarly large crowds protested in Chicago and other major cities– all rallying behind a “Beer for Prosperity” battle cry.  Soon the voices of the unemployed drowned out the buzz-and-revenue killing voices of the “drys.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election later that same year paved the way for The 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition; it was passed the following year.

Beer March images

 [A portion of this post first appeared on Boing Boing, where your correspondent is a contributor]

From the Plague-On-Both-Their-Houses Department: It’s come to this…


The Andy Warhol banana that graced the cover of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album has become the subject of litigation between the band and the artist’s estate.

In a nutshell, the estate believes that it holds the copyright, and is licensing the image (for everything from iPad covers to Absolut ads).  The band argues that there is no copyright (as the original ran without a notice), but that the image is protected as a trademark of the band– so the estate is infringing.  (There’s a more detailed recounting of situation and its background at Final Boss Form.)

One is tempted to launch into a discussion of the case as a symptom of the diseased state of intellectual property law and practice in the U.S.; but your correspondent has already burned pixels doing that, e.g., here, here, and here.  Suffice it here to quote the ever-insightful Pop Loser: “This whole story is an excellent metaphor for the world we currently live in and should probably make us all a little bit sad.”


As we re-up our affiliation with Creative Commons and write our Representatives to oppose SOPA, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that “The Noble Experiment”– the national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that was better known as “Prohibition”– was ratified (the 18th Amendment).

By the time it was repealed in 1933, organized crime had become a major feature of American city life, and the American public had adopted the invented-for-the-occasion word “scofflaw.”

Ku Klux Klan: “Defender of the 18th Amendment” (source)

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