The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave


In The Political Power of Bad Ideas, Mark Lawrence Schrad looks on an oddity of modern history--the broad diffusion of temperance legislation in the early twentieth century--to make a broad argument about how bad policy ideas achieve international success. His root question is this: how could a bad policy idea--one that was widely recognized by experts as bad before adoption, and which ultimately failed everywhere--come to be adopted throughout the world? To answer it, Schrad uses an institutionalist approach, and focuses in particular on the US, Russia/USSR (ironically, one of the only laws the Soviets kept on the books was the Tsarist temperance law), and Sweden. Conventional wisdom, based largely on the U.S. experience, blames evangelical zealots for the success of the temperance movement. Yet as Schrad shows, "prohibition was adopted in ten countries other than the United States, as well as countless colonial possessions-all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal." Schrad focuses on the dynamic interaction of ideas and political institutions, tracing the process through which concepts of dubious merit gain momentum and achieve credibility as they wend their way through institutional structures. And while he focuses on one episode, his historical argument applies far more broadly, and even can tell us a great deal about how today's policy failures, such as reasons proffered for invading Iraq, became acceptable.


There is no social movement in our day more amazing than the
world-wide rebellion against rum domination. Who would have
dreamed that autocratic Russia would so soon become a pro
hibition nation? Whiskey-ridden England, … France, and even
Germany, have taken steps to check the liquor traffic. Canada has
outlawed the saloon from a number of her provinces. Newfoundland
voted dry at an election last month. In our own country eighty per
cent of the territory is dry and sixty-five per cent of the people are
living in districts where the saloon is no longer tolerated. What is
the basis of this world-wide phenomena? Such world movements
were never built on sand foundations.

—Rev. A. C. Archibald, “Explaining the World-Wide
Prohibition Phenomena” (1915)

The prohibition of alcohol was a mistake—a historic policy gaffe and a political fiasco. In the language of policy studies, it was a “suboptimal” policy option: a bad idea when compared with the more effective alternatives available. Novelist, historian, and social critic H. G. Wells famously lampooned “the crowning silliness of making prohibition a part of the Constitution of the United States” as the Eighteenth Amendment begot rampant corruption, bootlegging, and crime, eroded respect for law, and eliminated a valuable stream of government revenue by decimating an entire industry while miserably failing to achieve its purported aims of national sobriety, economic productivity, and communal moral salvation. As a result, this monumental domestic policy blunder would ultimately gain infamy as the only Amendment ever to be erased from the U.S. Constitution.

While alcohol prohibition is often thought of as a uniquely American phenomenon—foisted upon an unwitting nation by a cabal of rural, Midwestern, evangelical temperance zealots—the truth is that the push for government restrictions on alcohol was global in scope. Coinciding with the outbreak of World War I, prohibition was adopted in ten countries in . . .

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