Tag Archives: Prohibition

(Alcohol) Prohibition Was Originally a Popular Policy

Levine & Reinarman in 1991 write:

The anti alcohol, or temperance, movement was created in the early nineteenth century by physicians, ministers, and large employers concerned about the drunkenness of workers and servants. By the mid 1830s temperance had become a mass movement of the middle Class. Temperance was not, as is sometimes thought, the campaign of rural backwaters; rather, temperance was on the cutting edge of social reform and was closely allied with the antislavery and women’s rights movements. Always very popular, temperance remained the largest enduring middle-class movement of the nineteenth century (‘Leaven 1978, 1984; Tyrell 1979; Gusfield 1986; Rumbarger 1989; Blocker 1989).

The temperance campaign was devoted to convincing people that alcoholic drink in any form was evil, dangerous, and destructive. Throughout the nineteenth century, temperance supporters insisted that alcohol slowly but inevitably destroyed the moral character and the physical and mental health of all who drank it. Temperance supporters regarded alcohol the way people today view heroin: as an inherently addicting substance. Moderate consumption of alcohol, they maintained, naturally led to compulsive use to addiction. From the beginning, temperance ideology contained a powerful strand of fantasy. It held that alcohol was the major cause of nearly all social problems: unemployment, poverty, business failure, slums, insanity, crime and violence (especially against women and children). For the very real social and economic problems of industrializing America, the temperance movement offered universal abstinence as the panacea.

From roughly the 1850s on, many temperance supporters endorsed the idea of prohibition. after the Civil War the Prohibition Party, modeled on the Republican Party, championed the cause. Nineteenth-century prohibitionists believed that only when sufficient numbers of party members held office would prohibition be practical because only then would it be fully enforced. ‘

In the twentieth century a new prohibitionist organization – the Anti-Saloon League – came to dominate the movement (Odegard 1928: Timberlake 1963; Sinclair 1965; Gusfield 1968; Kerr 1985; Rumbarger 1989). The League patterned itself on the modern corporation, hiring lawyers to write model laws and organizers to raise funds and collect political debts.

The League put its considerable resources behind candidates of any party who would vote as it directed on the single issue of liquor. By expanding the numbers of elected officials beholden to it, and by writing laws for those legislators to enact, the League pushed through many local prohibition laws and some state measures. In 1913 the League finally declared itself in favor of Constitutional prohibition. Increasing numbers of large corporations joined the many Protestant churches that had long supported the League. Then, during the patriotic fervor of World War 1, prohibitionists mobilized the final support for a constitutional amendment. Among other arguments, prohibitionists claimed that in the United States the heavily German beer industry was sapping American will to fight.

By December 1917, both houses of Congress had voted the required two-thirds majority to send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, import, or export of intoxicating liquor. In November 1918 Congress passed the War Prohibition Act, which banned the manufacture and sale of all beverages including beer and wine that contained mote than 2.75 percent alcohol. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska b›came the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, which was to go into effect in one year. In October 1919 Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto to pass a strict enforcement act of prohibition known by the name of its sponsor, Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The Volstead Act defined as “intoxicating liquor” any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol.

At midnight on January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. The famous minister Billy Sunday celebrated by preaching a sermon to 10,000 people in which he repeated the fantasy at the heart of the temperance and prohibition crusades:

The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent. (quoted in Kobler 1973, 12)

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Against Prohibitionist public policy

I have an op-ed in the Missouri Record today discussing the proposed payday loan ban ballot initiative and why I think that this prohibition undermines the ability of society to order itself through the rule of law:

I am suggesting that as a society we evaluate carefully the kinds of prohibitions we are willing to tolerate. Alcohol prohibition is a classic example of when black markets created a society at war with itself, unable to tolerate the shackles of its own laws. This was not just because people chose to continue producing and consuming alcohol; it was also because the enforcement of alcohol prohibition further fractured society by creating black markets, places where no government can hope to long retain the consent or the good will of its own citizens.

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Thoughts on the ontology of Prohibition and origin stories

I was thinking about the notion of Prohibition lately, and realized there was a valuable insight to be garnered from the telling of the Original Prohibition story, or at least the way I see it.

What I refer to as the Original Prohibition, of course, was Adam & Eve’s experiment* with the mind-altering “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil”. And here is the crux of the story. It is a story about free will, and about how divine and human will interact, and the consequences of your choices.

I have the suspicion that many people (on both the right and the left) receive this narrative and think that the lesson from the story was that God’s Prohibition was not strong enough. It was not strong enough because it did not work to prevent our prototypical human ancestors from making a choice that brought misery and the profane to human existence. If Adam & Eve could have been prevented from eating that fruit, perhaps, the human race would not be in this ambiguous, pitiable state of earthly existence. The divine would be the sole content of human experience, and who wouldn’t want that?

But having the freedom to choose involves the awkward notion of living with the consequences of your actions. Not the false, legal, human-created consequences (at least in consensual actions where there is no victim), but the consequences of living with the knowledge, and the impact of your free will.

I have the sense that people who support prohibitions on consensual, non-tortuous activity really have the mindset that if we can just engineer society to this end or that end that we can prevent all bad outcomes, all miserable outcomes. But this is the worst kind of foolishness. Society is best served by criminalizing tortuous behavior, not non-tortuous behavior. To criminalize non-tortuous behavior is to subsume the notion of free will and human choice beneath the spectre of a glorious and impossible future.

The end result of criminalizing consensual, non-tortuous behavior, is that you create markets and industries that are dependent on the existence of the law and the need for its enforcement and not the real demand for goods and services by individuals. Ultimately, you can criminalize the entire canon of human activity through some extension of the law. The phrase “slippery slope” is appropriate here.

This is the ugly machine of fascism. It is the request to abrogate your rights and your choices for the ever-greater pursuit of security. But it is an ontological abyss. From a vantage point above, one can see the Gulag below, the (in)evitable promise of the Soviet Dream.

*One might replace the Judeo-Christian origin story with any of the many other different origin stories of similar structure and plot for the purposes of this argument.

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