Prohibition and Statistics

Stuart A. Rice

OF FALSITIES, it is constantly being said there are three kinds : lies, damn lies and statistics. The three categories, it will be noted, are arranged in crescendo. The first two are common, or back-fence varieties, and relatively harmless. Falsehoods which are clothed in statistical or graphic form, however, are properly regarded as more impressive. They demand public homage. In the fraternity of "whoppers" they wear the gilded robes.

If we use the term in the sense of quantitative data concerning social relationships, statistics have always been in discredit among large numbers of people. It is not because the average man is unable to comprehend statistical methods and results ; the public is seldom able to understand the means employed by scientists in arriving at their conclusions, yet these conclusions are accepted. The trouble is that statistics are used to support partisan causes. The common verdict of common people, which in some fundamental way so often approaches wisdom, has amended the old aphorism that "figures don't lie" by the addition "but liars do figure." Those of us who use statistics do not mean to lie, as a rule. We would not intentionally tell one of the common or "damn" varieties, yet we are often willing to condone the most flagrant statistical errors on behalf of a "righteous" cause. Distorted or in-adequate tables and graphs still testify to a double standard of rectitude when it comes to winning an election or promoting a program of social reform.

This double standard of probity is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the controversy regarding prohibition. Here is a social policy which wiped out huge economic interests and changed the habits of vast numbers of people on behalf of a "social" end. Many of the results of this policy appear to have differed widely from those which its advocates anticipated. The question of enforcement or modification has become a vital political issue and has even affected our international relationships. There seems to be need on every hand for an accurate description of the workings of this policy up to date, and an unbiased, reliable calculation of its social consequences.

The writer with a colleague was recently called upon to appraise a variety of statistical evidences concerning prohibition, including data which had been widely circulated by the best known organizations on both sides of the issue. He was forced to the opinion that no unbiased and statistically sound conclusions regarding either the enforcement or the social consequences of this policy are at present available to the American public. The few well-founded indications which exist are buried by propaganda. No more valuable contribution can be made at present to the prohibition controversy, in his opinion, than to point out the dangers to clear thinking which reside in this propaganda, both "wet" and "dry" alike.[1]

The flimsiness of the statistical evidences which underlie many of the arguments of the anti-prohibition organizations seems to defy moderate characterization. One example will suffice : Bearing the date of June 14, 1923, a memorandum was submitted to his home government by Sir Auck-

( 655) -land Geddes, British Ambassador at Washington, on the subject of the effects of prohibition in the United States. In this memorandum were tables under the following headings : "Present Consumption of Intoxicating Liquors," "Arrests for Drunkenness," "Deaths from Alcoholism" and "Effect on Crime," The figures in these tables were "compiled by the three Bureaus in which the most detailed statistics as to the effects of prohibition are available," namely, the Anti-Saloon League, the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Federal Prohibition Unit of the Treasury.

The impartiality of the Ambassador in gathering the material for his report in this manner is only to be commended, yet it should be noted that no effort was made to examine into the sources of the "statistics" given him. The method of "compilation" in the case of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment was one of guess-work, pure and simple. The "detailed statistics," which seem to have been accepted in good faith by the British Ambassador, and given currency abroad in an official document, were based, in the words of the National Secretary-Treasurer of this "anti" organization, upon "observation" and "newspaper accounts," as mentally tallied up from day to day in the mind of a prejudiced paid opponent of prohibition. So far as the writer's interview with this gentleman disclosed, not one scrap of evidence, obtained by processes of orderly collection, summarization and analysis, was utilized in preparing the figures given to the Ambassador for world-wide distribution.

But let us turn to the other side:

The writer has before him a pamphlet just received without solicitation from the Anti-Saloon League of America. It is entitled "$100,000,000 saved Connecticut in Three Dry Years." He has been informed that this pamphlet is the first of a series under preparation, presenting the alleged social effects of prohibition in individual states. The opening paragraph of this pamphlet is as follows :

Prohibition has been worth over $100,000,000 to Connecticut in the first three years of its enforcement. It has saved the lives of 11,784 people, reduced preventable illness by the equivalent of 23,568 persons continuously ill for one year each, postponed the payment of over $4,000-000 in insurance policies, decreased committments to the county jails by 29,144 and to the penal and reformatory institutions by 846, kept 487 children from becoming dependent on county support because of the death, neglect, imprisonment or other failure of their parents, reduced the number of almshouse inmates by 2,774, produced 166 fewer cases of alcoholic insanity, prevented fatal auto accidents to the number of 283, made unnecessary over 40,000 arrests by the police of the various cities of the state, added $55,000,000 to savings accounts.

Examination of the statistical tables which follow in this pamphlet, and upon which the fore-going assertions appear to be based, indicates that prohibition has been regarded as the sole factor responsible for any favorable development in the state of Connecticut since the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. No credit is given for the work of other agencies striving for social betterment. No attempt has apparently been made to ascertain whether, for example, decreases in mortality, preventable illness or committments to county jails were to be found before prohibition as well as after. No account is taken of trends with respect to any of the data presented.

More than half of the $100,000,000 "saving" claimed for prohibition is attributed to increases in savings bank deposits. This claim appears to be based on the four years increase shown by comparing the "dry" year ending Oct. 1, 1922 with the "wet"year ending similarly in 1918.[2] This increase slightly exceeds $55,0000,000. According to the very same table from which this result is derived, the increase during the three "wet" years preceding 1918 was $48,000,000, or the equivalent, at the same rate, of a four year increase during the "wet" period of $64,000,000. The utter absurdity of the claim that prohibition was responsible for the increases in savings bank de-posits since 1918 is made still more apparent when it is noted that the increase was only 15% during a four year period, that no account is taken of increases in population during that period, that no consideration is given to changes in the real value of money or to changes in wage scales and interest rates ; finally, that no attention is paid to changes in the business cycle, with which, according to authorities, the volume of savings bank deposits is closely correlated. Yet it is upon this hopelessly insufficient evidence that the Anti-Saloon League rests its case in what it seems to regard as a valuable contribution to knowledge regarding the effects of prohibition.

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The recognized canons of statistical accuracy have been habitually violated in still more flagrant fashion by the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church. An offense repeatedly committed by this organization consists in the graphic exaggeration of the ratio existing between data compiled for two separate periods or years. A typical example is shown in the accompanying facsimile from its "Clip Sheet," purporting to demonstrate that prohibition has increased the consumption of milk.[3] The ratio which is alleged to exist between the gross consumption of milk in 1917 (wet) and 1922 (dry) is approximately that between 82.5 and 100. This ratio is indicated graphically by two milk bottles. The size of the larger of these bottles as compared with the smaller has been increased in all dimensions ac-cording to the ratio stated. The impression obtained by the reader is that of a quart bottle and a pint bottle, indicating a consumption that has doubled under prohibition.

But this is not the only aspect of the figure that is likely to deceive the unwary reader. Once again, no account is taken of trends. There seems to be little doubt that the sale and consumption of milk have been increasing in this country more rapidly than population for a number of years,-before the adoption of prohibition as well as after. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the per capita consumption of milk increased from 42 gallons in 1914 to 49 gallons in 1921.[4] This is equivalent to an increase of 16.7% over a period of seven years. Whether the increase was more rapid during the "dry" years in the latter part of this period is not indicated by the Department's figures. However, the consumption of milk is some-what dependent upon the number of milk cows, and the latter is known for each of the years in the period mentioned.[5] Reducing these numbers to index numbers on the base of the 1914 figure, the number of milk cows in the United States may be represented as follows :


It is clear that the rate of increase in the number of milk cows has tended to decline rather than to gain under prohibition.

But lest this demonstration should be appropriated by the anti-prohibitionist, let the writer hasten to assert that these figures are probably as meaningless for any association between prohibition and milk consumption, as are those of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals. There are many uses for milk in addition to household consumption. It is quite possible that the latter has increased during the "dry" period at a more rapid rate than formerly because of artificial stimulation. The Department of Agriculture says

During the last three or four years educational campaigns have been conducted in many cities to increase the consumption of milk. Health officials, schools, and various agencies have assisted in these campaigns because of the belief that it was to the advantage of the people that a larger quantity be consumed. . . As a result of this educational work, the consumption in several large cities has been increased as much as 10 to 20 percent, and the increase maintained. . . . Similar campaigns are being conducted in rural districts, and it is probable that during the coming years the consumption of milk will be materially increased throughout the country.[6]

The foregoing analysis is sufficient to indicate that prohibition, instead of doubling the consumption of milk, as the unsuspecting reader of the "dry" propaganda cited would suppose, has had little if any effect upon its increased consumption.

The writer has no desire to bring particular condemnation upon the organizations mentioned. They serve to illustrate a vice which is wide-spread. The vice does assume particular importance, nevertheless, in the case of the Anti-Saloon League and the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, because of the intimate relationships which have existed between their central offices and that of the Prohibition Enforcement Office of the Federal Government.

Nor does the writer desire to belittle the motives of men and women who are devoting their lives to movements in which they believe. His plea is on behalf of clear thinking, accurate state-

( 667) -ment and intellectual honesty within the fields of their endeavor. Ignorance of a law exempts no one from the consequences of its violation. If this principle has become almost axiomatic of man-made statutes, its validity should be even more apparent in the realms of natural and social causation. The wish or the expectation that prohibition will cause an increase in the consumption of milk does not bring the event to pass, and the assertion that it has come to pass, with other statements of like validity, will return to plague the organization that makes it. There is reason to believe that religious and social agencies of reform have been injured immeasurably during the past half century, together with the "causes" which they sought to promote, by the failure of some of them to recognize that untruths are still lies, even though they be robed in statistics.


  1. The study referred to was made by the writer in collaboration with Mr. Hugh S Carter of Columbia University, on behalf of the Research Department of the Commission on the Church and Social Service, of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, by whose kind permission the material cited below is presented.
  2. Table 9, page 14.
  3. July 14, 1923. The Clip Sheet is sent to newspapers and other periodicals in the United States for their reproduction of matter which it contains, with or without credit,
  4. Yearbook, 1922, p. 287.
  5. Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, 1921, p. 690,
  6. Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture 1922, pp. 288-89. It should be noted that the rural districts, for the most part, have long been "dry."

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