Policy Resistance – Immigration & Prohibition

Complex systems find many ways of resisting or evading pressures, resulting in policy failure, backlashes, whack-a-mole games and other unintended consequences. Some great examples just wandered by my desk:

Via Economist’s View:

Immigration reform has a long history of unintended consequences: More than two decades of increased enforcement since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has done little to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. In fact, it seems to have increased their numbers. …

Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out … that measures to secure the border seemed to produce almost the opposite of what was intended. … With increasing border enforcement, workers who used to shuttle between jobs in California or Texas and home in Zacatecas or Michoacán simply began to stay put and sent for their families, becoming permanent, if sometimes reluctant, residents. According to Massey, post-IRCA border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.

From a great article on Wayne Wheeler, The Man Who Turned Off the Taps, in Smithsonian:

But for all his political might, Wheeler could not do what he and all the other Prohibitionists had set out to do: they could not purge alcoholic beverages from American life. Drinking did decline at first, but a combination of legal loopholes, personal tastes and political expediency conspired against a dry regime.

As declarative as the 18th Amendment was—forbidding “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the Volstead Act allowed exceptions. You were allowed to keep (and drink) liquor you had in your possession as of January 16, 1920; this enabled the Yale Club in New York, for instance, to stockpile a supply large enough to last the full 14 years that Prohibition was in force. Farmers and others were allowed to “preserve” their fruit through fermentation, which placed hard cider in cupboards across the countryside and homemade wine in urban basements. “Medicinal liquor” was still allowed, enriching physicians (who generally charged by the prescription) and pharmacists (who sold such “medicinal” brands as Old Grand-Dad and Johnnie Walker). A religious exception created a boom in sacramental wines, leading one California vintner to sell communion wine—legally—in 14 different varieties, including port, sherry, tokay and cabernet sauvignon.

By the mid-’20s, those with a taste for alcohol had no trouble finding it, especially in the cities of the East and West coasts and along the Canadian border. At one point the New York police commissioner estimated there were 32,000 illegal establishments selling liquor in his city. In Detroit, a newsman said, “It was absolutely impossible to get a drink…unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar.” Washington’s best-known bootlegger, George L. Cassiday (known to most people as “the man in the green hat”), insisted that “a majority of both houses” of Congress bought from him, and few thought he was bragging.

Worst of all, the nation’s vast thirst gave rise to a new phenomenon—organized crime, in the form of transnational syndicates that controlled everything from manufacture to pricing to distribution. A corrupt and underfunded Prohibition Bureau couldn’t begin to stop the spread of the syndicates, which considered the politicians who kept Prohibition in place their greatest allies. Not only did Prohibition create their market, it enhanced their profit margins: from all the billions of gallons of liquor that changed hands illegally during Prohibition, the bootleggers did not pay, nor did the government collect, a single penny of tax.

The prohibition article also poses an interesting puzzle. If prohibition was more or less quickly and broadly unpopular, how did it get passed by such landslide margins in the first place? I can’t believe that ignorance of the possible outcome was universal, so there must have been some powerful positive feedback behind the initial passage of the policy. Perhaps it was a tipping point effect: once a vote becomes sufficiently lopsided, fewer and fewer politicians want to be on the losing side of a landslide vote, so they join the herd. A modern analogy might be the post-9/11 authorization of the Iraq war.