The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

September 30, 2010

The back cover of Mark Lawrence Schrad's book describes it as a tour de force. Drawing on research in three different languages (Russian, Swedish and English), with 65 pages of footnotes, it merits that description. But great efforts and prodigious work do not guarantee the quality of the resulting product.

This book is largely an attempt to maintain the importance of political structure as a major element in understanding and explaining the success or failure of policy endeavours. Schrad has chosen as his topic the prohibition of alcohol - its acceptance and later its rejection in Sweden, Russia and the US in the post-First World War era. This comparativist method and focus on political structures rather than ideological and cultural aspects constitute the unique contribution of the study to both the analysis of prohibition as a policy and the general study of how ideas are shaped into policies by political systems.

Each of the three countries examined here had developed its own system of political organisation. Russia's autocratic system, both under the tsars and the Communists, ignored input from the population. Schrad calls the US a "society-dominated" system in which public support was essential to policymaking. Sweden, whose system of democratic corporatism Schrad clearly prefers, has traditionally granted substantial power to technical elites and produced an alcohol control system. It was non-prohibitive, but limited and controlled by agencies in what was known as the "Gothenberg programme" of rationed consumption.

There are several aspects to the story Schrad tells or asserts. One is the existence of a prohibition "wave" in which the three countries influenced each other in their attempts to shape laws affecting alcohol drinking. I do not feel competent to analyse the work in Sweden and Russia and will confine myself to discussing the US, about which I published a major study of the Temperance Movement some years ago.

There is little to indicate any major influence or even consideration of the Swedish system on the support, debate or discussion of drinking controls in the Women's Christian Temperance Union's journal, The Union Signal, or in its convention speeches. Schrad uses the quantity of articles in prohibitionist and other media as evidence of increasing or decreasing influence. But exposure does not indicate influence: Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring did more for the environmental movement than a warehouse of other works. Schrad does not document any debate, movement or leadership in the American movement that drew on Swedish sources - in contrast, say, to the international influences on student and civil rights movements in the 1960s.

The study is useful in pointing to differences in deep-rooted structure as an important element in understanding how a given policy becomes accepted as governance. But Schrad's view of structure is narrow and limited. It ignores the interplay between policymakers, policy-pushers and publics in influencing how structure is used. In the US, the Constitution provided a structure by which amendments were possible and specified the necessary procedure. But what was then the current form of electing legislatures gave rural, Protestant Americans dominance in ratification. Both the Great Depression and the citizenship of urban and Catholic populations threatened prohibition via the nomination of Al Smith as Democratic candidate for US president in 1928.

Schrad's study lacks one major ingredient - people. He makes much of the difference between cognitive and ideational elements in constructing policy. He ignores the view now prevalent that such a distinction does not acknowledge the interplay between the two, and the sheer difficulty in achieving consensus on fact. Indeed, we are still debating the causes and policies of the Depression.

Despite the title, nowhere in the book does he even maintain that bad ideas have any greater power than good ideas. He is clear that he prefers the Swedish system of alcohol control to the US system, which he faults as a bad idea because it ignored the cognitive impediments to enforcement. This gives the unfortunate impression of arrogance, and ignores the diverse values achieved through the debate.

In short, Schrad has taken a positivist, utilitarian view of governmental action. Despite my criticisms, there is usefulness in this work in calling attention to structure - yet I find it more of a tour and less of a force.

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

By Mark Lawrence Schrad. Oxford University Press, 314pp, £37.50 ISBN 9780195391237. Published 8 April 2010

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