Prohibition, Mandating “Ethical” Compliance, and Data Quality
I just finished reading a very interesting book on the evolution of Prohibition in the US in the mid-late 1800s and early 1900s. The book, “Last Call” by Daniel Okrent, followed the temperance movement that started with a bunch of men pledging to stop drinking through its alignment with the women’s suffrage movement, to the passage of the Prohibition amendment, followed by its eventual repeal. One revelation to me was that , according to the author, the political processes that enabled the passage of prohibition essentially created the modern methods of political lobbying, the ability of minority parties to significantly sway majority rule, and (when push comes to shove) that when you mandate behavioral changes, you probably should have four things in mind:
- Your value proposition must be appealing enough to convince those you are trying to regulate that it is in their best interests to comply;
- You should ensure that you have adequate resources for inspection, monitoring, and enforcement;
- You don’t allow so many loopholes that enable the ad hoc creation of classes or parties who can blatantly evade compliance; and
- You don’t reward illicit behavior.
The first item reflects the fact that while there was an extremely vocal community that believed that drinking alcohol is the root of all problems, lots of people still liked to drink. Try to roll that rock up a hill.
The second item was discussed in the context of the minimal amount of money allocated by Congress for enforcement of Prohibition. Not only that, apparently the role of an enforcement agent was more lucrative in terms of graft and payoffs for looking the other way. At some points and locations the lack of diligence and investment in enforcement allowed illicit serving of alcohol as if no law existed.
The third item refers to the fact that as part of a social movement intended to “dry up” those lower-income families in which a large amount of income was expended on liquor, the resulting constitutional amendment still allowed the wealthy to retain their private stock as of a particular date. As a result, some people had ample reserves, while others had to resort to all sorts of bizarre methods to extract intoxicants from relatively poisonous liquids.
Lastly, the combination of the lack of enforcement coupled with the inability to direct global trade allowed multiple channels of alcohol to stream in from foreign countries with multiple “creative” methods for bypassing the US law. For example, trainloads of cases of bottles of liquor were brought by rail, presumably through the Canadian border into the US and ultimately destined for Mexico. The fact that these trains never made it to Mexico (i.e., they were unloaded within the US) was just one method bootleggers managed to create an entire industry of organized crime.
Mandating prohibition can be compared at times to mandated data standards and data quality. Without managing those same four aspects, the culture will evolve into one that rewards those who bypass compliance and essentially punishes those who play by the rules. As my teenaged daughter says, “That sounds like a fail.”