Sunday, March 4, 2012


I recently finished watching Ken Burn’s latest documentary, “Prohibition.” Like all of his movies, it was engaging, discussing the subject mainly through the lives of people who lived through it, with occasional background filled in by the narrator.

In the mid-1800s drunkenness was a real problem in the US. America was internationally renowned as a nation of drunkards. The working class especially were prone to spend their evenings in one of the brewery or distillery owned saloons, drinking away their paychecks and coming home drunk to their families.

Groups such as the Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were formed to combat the widespread drunkenness. They decried the plight of working-class families, left with no money to buy food and drunk, often abusive fathers and husbands. They blamed the brewery companies and their saloons, and pushed for legislation to limit and/or ban the sale of alcohol. The Prohibitionist movement steadily gained popularity, and laws were passed by local, then State governments. In 1920, after decades of lobbying, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed limiting the sale and ownership of alcohol. The legislation designed to enforce the amendment, the Volstead Act, outlawed anything containing one half of one percent or more of alcohol.

Exceptions were made for alcohol used for medicinal or religious purposes. In the first year of Prohibition, orders for sacramental wine from the Catholic Church quadrupled. Adult Jews were each allowed a certain amount of wine per week, and Jewish congregations that in 1920 had forty families saw their membership swell to over eight hundred by 1921. Doctors wrote millions or prescriptions for whisky and liquor.

Those who couldn’t get alcohol legally got it illegally. Shipments poured in over the Canadian and Mexican borders, and stills were set up in basements, barns, and caves all over the country. Illegal alcohol dealers became known as “bootleggers,” after their practice of keeping flasks of whiskey in their boots. Bootleggers sold to all levels of society, including some who made regular deliveries to Capitol Hill. Eventually bootlegging became organized, and people who would otherwise have been petty criminals became kingpins, overseeing huge distribution networks.

Illegal alcohol distribution resulted in low-quality, sometimes fatally dangerous drinks and in deadly gang warfare. On top of that, the government was no longer collecting the hefty tax it had previously gotten from alcohol. It was instead spending money trying to enforce Prohibition.

Unfortunately, no one wanted to pay for it. The federal government authorized only a few thousand Prohibition agents for the whole country, figuring that it would mostly be dealt with by local police. Local governments, for their part, figured that it was a federal law and therefore the responsibility of the federal government. The result was half-hearted enforcement of a law that was increasingly unpopular and ignored.

About ten years into Prohibition, groups were formed to lobby for its repeal. Oddly, they lobbied using the same anti-alcohol arguments that groups like the Anti-Saloon League had been using. Except instead of decrying the saloons, they decried the speakeasys, the illegal bars that littered every major city. The speakeasys were even worse, they said, because unlike the saloons they were frequented by women and minors as well as men. By 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment was passed, ending Prohibition.

As I watched, I was struck by a number of things.

First, that Prohibition had been an important issue in American politics for about a century. American politicians’ positions on Prohibition could make or destroy their careers, and the country was divided between the “drys” (those in favor of Prohibition) and the “wets” (those against it). And it wasn’t as if there was nothing more important going on. Campaigning for Prohibition started not long before the Civil War, and Prohibition ended during the Great Depression. Yet today Prohibition is not at all part of the American consciousness. It’s a few paragraphs in history textbooks.

Second, the parallels between the attempt to control alcoholism by criminalizing alcohol and the current war on drugs are obvious. It didn’t work then, why would anyone think it would work now? The only difference I can see is that drug use is not generally culturally significant the way that drinking is. Most people are not accustomed to having heroin with their steak or going out for a joint with their friends after work. Still, the criminalization of owning and distributing drugs is the same as it was for alcohol, the existence of a widespread black market, the laws creating the impetus for gang violence and organized crime, and the disproportionate number of people in prison for it are all the same.

Third, and most relevant to us in the Jblogosphere, is the complete ineffectiveness of blanket bans, especially when contrasted with regulation. Banning alcohol, while it did relieve some problems, was largely ineffective in combating alcoholism, and on the whole made things much worse. People who wouldn’t have gone to a saloon, such as the upper classes and women of all classes, went to speakeasies every night. Some people went just to spite the law. Prohibition created “a nation of scofflaws.” People who would normally never have broken the law ignored Prohibition because, after all, everyone did. Prohibition is also responsible for the existence of modern organized crime. The territories carved out by the various illegal distributers are the same ones used today by the mob.

Instead of attacking the brewery and distillery-owned saloons, teaching people how to drink responsibly, and developing programs to help alcoholics control their drinking, groups like the Anti-Saloon League pushed for the complete banning of alcohol, and eventually wrote the federal enforcement laws so that even today’s cough medicine would be illegal. It backfired spectacularly.

The elements of Orthodoxy that are prone to bans aren’t much given to studying history, even Jewish history. But it would serve them well to study Prohibition. Here was a movement with popular support, a movement that got a Constitutional Amendment passed, something that had to pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and then be ratified by three-quarters of the State legislatures. It had the authority of the federal government behind it, its own enforcement bureau, and in theory local law enforcement. And yet it failed utterly. About all it did was destroy the saloon system, and that could have been done without trying to force people to completely give up drinking. So what makes anyone think that top-down unpopular bans with no enforcement apparatus are going to be effective? Why not learn from Prohibition’s mistakes, and attack the real problems rather than trying to make them go away by banning the mediums through which they appear?