Friday, September 16, 2011
Lessons from the Noble Experiment
Whenever America is going through one of its periodic periods of temporary insanity, I like to read a good book about the past episodes we somehow managed to survive. In the last year or so, that would include Richard H. Rovere’s Senator Joe McCarthy, Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and, just recently, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. All three are highly recommended, but it’s the latter I’d like to discuss today.
I am familiar enough with alcoholism and its attendant problems not to take the subject lightly. For the same reason I don’t reflexively blame the makers and sellers of the product for all the problems caused by its abuse. A bottle of whisky, leaving the distillery or the liquor store shelf, is the same bottle of whisky regardless of whether it’s purchased by someone who drinks it at the rate of two ounces an occasional night over a period of weeks or by someone who drinks half of it in 15 minutes then gets behind the wheel of a car. In the first instance, it’s a benign pleasure; in the second it’s a potentially lethal brew.
H.L. Mencken once defined an idealist as someone who can’t grasp that some problems have no solutions. Because the problems associated with alcohol have to be managed in the face of its widespread acceptance by the public, those problems fall into that class. Prohibitionists, seeing only the drunk in the gutter, never grasped this.
Yet they achieved one of the most stunning, if wrong-headed, results in American political history, amending the U.S. Constitution to ban the manufacture and transport for sale of intoxicating beverages. Generally speaking, a law replaces one problem with another deemed less onerous. Prohibition didn’t even do that. It reduced overall alcohol consumption, but may have exacerbated binge drinking. Okrent quotes one drinker as saying that it was almost impossible to enjoy a leisurely drink in a speakeasy; there was a sense of urgency, of needing to drink the booze while you could.
While the abuse of alcohol continued during Prohibition, a whole new set of problems arose, chiefly involving the creation and growth of large-scale criminal syndicates that got rich delivering a product for which there was an endless thirst. Hand in hand with the criminal enterprises went official corruption and the stink of hypocrisy as politicians (many of them drinkers) praised temperance but refused to vote any serious money for enforcing the law.
How did it happen? Prohibitionists were never a majority, but they had the ability to deliver or deny a key bloc of votes based on a politician’s stand on alcohol. It was enough to swing almost any seriously contested election to the candidate who was dry, in word if not deed. They also were greatly helped by the apportionment of congressional and state legislative districts, which in those pre-Warren Court days vastly overrepresented small towns and rural areas at the expense of cities. So great was the legislative disparity that the state of Missouri rejected a Prohibition referendum by a 53-47 margin, and at the same election voted in a legislature that ratified the Eighteenth Amendment by a 3 to 1 margin.
Prohibition was born largely in the culture of rural, Protestant America, fearful of immigration, urbanization and the Catholic Church. By 1920 America had become a primarily urban nation; nearly a century has passed, and a sizable minority of people (some of whom live in urban areas) are still in denial. As long as the denial persists, bad policy will surely follow.