April 4, 2007

Prohibition makes a comeback

Katy says: In Venezuela, we have a popular saying: "pagan justos por pecadores", roughly "the just pay for the sins of the sinners." This was never more true than with the government’s bonehead decision to ban the sale of alcohol during the Holy Week holiday.

In case you missed it somehow, the Chávez administration made the surprise announcement that sales of alcohol outside the hours of 10 am to 5 pm would be banned throughout the nation in the week leading up to Easter. The justification is the inescapable fact that, every year, hundreds of Venezuelans die in car accidents during the Holy Week holiday, many of them due to driving under the influence.

Now, if you’re a PSF comfortably sitting at home, you’re probably thinking "this Chávez guy is wonderful, he’s going head-on against drinking and driving." That's understandable, since Venezuela has a serious alcohol-addiction problem and it takes thousands of lives each year. But in this area, as in so many others, the government offers a gesture, not a policy, much less a solution.

They could train and equip cops to enforce DWI laws. They could take steps to make sure serial drunk drivers stay off the road. They could run a serious public education campaign through the state-controlled media to make drunk driving less socially acceptable. They could spend some of those oil billions on breathalizers, or drivers's education or popularizing the notion of a designated driver, or on compensating families who've lost loved ones to drunk drivers. If they cared, they could do something substantive about this very serious problem. But they don't.

Instead, they grandstand.

Never mind that banning alcohol sales in the evenings hurts folks such as restauranteurs or bar-owners, who usually make a big chunk of their living during Holy Week. Never mind that this measure impinges on their right to engage in lawful business activities. Never mind that it arbitrarily curtails their customers' right to consume a product that, as far as I know, is not only legal but well-liked by chavistas and opositores alike.

What's really maddening is realizing that it simply won't work, and the cure will probably be worse than the disease. If liquor stores can't sell legally after five, they will do so ilegally, probably through the back of the store at a higher price and probably without paying taxes. A decision like this is basically unenforceable, and you can bet the cops and National Guards in charge of making sure nobody sells booze will make a killing off racketeering. And there's nothing in the decision regarding alcohol consumption - if you want to get plastered, you simply have to buy your booze ahead of time.

Wikipedia lists the effects of Prohibition in the United States:
"A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Racketeering happened when powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When repeal of prohibition occurred in 1933, following passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states (states still had the right to enforce their own laws concerning alcohol consumption), because of competition with low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores."
But chavistas don't learn from history. Their modus operandi has always been to swing policy sledgehammers at social mosquitos - more often than not missing, and smashing anything else that happens to be in the way.

It's a pattern we've seen repeated again and again in all kinds of policy areas. People are drinking and driving? Ban alcohol sales. The price of private health care is going up? Nationalize the clinics. Unemployment is a problem? Ban firings. Things are too expensive? Threaten people who raise prices. Bothered by social protests? Make it a crime to block the street.

Folks, this government is the bull, and we're stuck in the china shop with it.