“For Our Own Good”: the U.S. Government’s Prohibition Poisoning Policy

Slate has posted a shocking story by historian Deborah Blum, exposing long-forgotten efforts by the U.S. government to poison the alcohol supply during Prohibition for the express purpose of frightening would-be consumers of bootleg liquor into abstaining. She estimates that the government’s poisoning program killed more than 10,000 Americans before the “noble experiment” of Prohibition was abandoned in 1933.

The horrific episode is an abject lesson in the dangers of extreme Utilitarianism, in which unambiguous wrongs are deemed acceptable because of the great benefits they will create, or the greater wrongs they will prevent. It tells us that we should never trust those in power too much, because even good intentions and idealism can mutate into sinister and deadly forms. And it tells us that while we should be wary of conspiracy theories and our seemingly-paranoid fellow citizens who see malice and collusion in every misfortune, we must not dismiss them out of hand. Sometimes the conspiracies are real. Sometimes the paranoids are right.

Blum’s Slate piece is a sobering and frightening account that also raises questions about the holes in our historical record. There are surely other dark episodes in our nation’s history that we need to know about, understand, and learn from. In the meantime, we owe a debt of thanks to Deborah Blum.

By all means, read her article.

2 thoughts on ““For Our Own Good”: the U.S. Government’s Prohibition Poisoning Policy

  1. “Sometimes the paranoids are right.”

    Yes, but extremism on any side does not justify either side. But there is indeed something to be said for listening to perceived noise to find actionable truth not spoken otherwise. Noise is often based on the perception of the hearer. There are also rules and norms to consider, not to mention laws. They are not necessarily all inextricable or even justly applicable.

    As usual, thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. Sorry, but killing 10,000 American citizens to help cement Prohibition into the culture is NOT utilitarianism, it is MURDER, sanctioned by our own government, and perpetrated on our own citizens.

    It is no wonder that conspiracy theorists abound. And why shouldn’t they? Maybe the Mafia did kill Kennedy. Maybe we really didn’t land on the moon. Maybe aliens walk among us today (a la “Men in Black”). Maybe there is a small royal conspiracy devoted to lowering the world population to a “manageable level” and are doing it through vaccines and medications and food supplies.

    Why not? If the US government knowingly murdered 10,000 people to PROVE A POINT, what else could seem irrational?

    Too scary for me.

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