Remember That Thing I Wrote

Woman pouring alcohol from a cane into her Coca-Cola.
Library of Congress, 1922

Here’s a blast from the past: I just learned the entry I wrote on the Prohibition of Alcohol for the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism was put online last summer. Way back in 2008, I was asked to contribute a thousand words on the subject as a result of an article I had written in Reason on Prohibition in and around New York City, but until now the Encyclopedia was only available in very expensive print.

America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid-19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash-strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Not long after the book was published, I read a review of it on a libertarian website which spent a disproportionate amount of pixels criticizing my entry. The issue lay in my very different interpretation of how Prohibition’s repeal came about in 1933. The standard libertarian narrative states that repeal occurred once politicians realized they stood to make more money by taxing alcohol rather than banning it, and therefore as rational actors they responded to market incentives and re-legalized booze, albeit under heavy regulatory control.

It’s true there were some politicians at the time who justified repeal to their constituents with such logic, but the real story is a lot more messy and, frankly, human. While in the beginning Prohibition was popular among certain groups of Americans, opinion had turned against it by the end of the 1920s, mainly because of its association with crime and violence. Arguably the biggest turning point was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago, which seems quaint considering how habituated we are today to an endless stream of violence, imprisonments, and overdoses in the name of the War on Drugs.

By 1932 — an election year — politicians had jumped upon the issue, which (if you read my entry) ranked higher in people’s minds than the economic crisis. At the Republican convention, Herbert Hoover, who was a staunch temperance man, refused to buckle to overwhelming public pressure for all-out repeal, so as a compromise the Republicans chose a “moist” platform, which called for the legalization of beer and wine but a continued prohibition of hard spirits. Like most compromises, this satisfied no one; the American public wanted full repeal while the Anti-Saloon League and their acolytes wanted to stay the course.

The Democratic convention followed afterwards. Seizing the opportunity, Democrats voted on a full repeal platform, and a group of them opposed to presidential contender Al Smith (who was Catholic and had enemies within the party) offered the nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. on the condition that he switch his stance from dry to wet. FDR was never one to let personal principles interfere with his ambition and flipped on the spot. Of course, he won the 1932 election, and before the end of his first year in office, the 21st Amendment had been ratified by the necessary 36 states.

I learned long ago to ignore that certain stripe of economist-slash-libertarian who assumes people are automatons single-mindedly programmed to chase dollar bills. My experience in anthropology and history has taught me that while, yes, humans are generally rational, the internal code that dictates that rationality is often a mix of fear, love, sex, vengeance, and a whole host of emotions beyond a simple appetite for monetary advantage. A man who pushes his child out of the path of a runaway car is not motivated by his economic desire to avoid hospital bills.

Anyway, I’m glad to see my entry finally made available to the wider world, even if its dated style has far too many thuses and therefores. Weren’t we just talking about writers being embarrassed by older work?

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