by Jim Davies, 10/5/2011
I learned quite a bit from Ken Burns' recent PBS blockbuster, "Prohibition." Well worth seeing the repeat, if you missed its first broadcast.
Burns showed how alcohol addiction was a serious problem in 19th Century America - not an artificial one invented by government so it could provide a "solution", as is so often the case. He said that consumption per capita was three times what it is today, and some percentage of families were being ruined when the breadwinner spent his wages at the saloon. Unfortunately he didn't specify what percentage, but evidently it was big enough to get a large number of (mainly) women, fervently aroused to bring the booze trade to an end. They tried persuasion first, then made the fatal error of employing political force.
These "Drys" never had a majority, nor probably ever more than 35% of the population; perhaps 25% is closer. But one of the very interesting things Burns showed was how they parlayed that earnest minority into an unstoppable majority favoring Amendment 18. The activist would visit a political candidate (at every level, starting in the County) and hand him an offer: promise to vote for prohibition when elected, and I guarantee you the support of my 25% of electors. They were strictly single-issue advocates and would approach every candidate. Simple: support my cause and I'll enable you to win; oppose it and I'll see that you lose. With 25% in his pocket, the advocate could and did change the course of history.
The other skill this pressure group demonstrated was how to take advantage of circumstances. Burns showed that the main obstacle they faced was that two thirds (!) of Federal revenue came from taxes on alcohol, prior to 1913; and most of that took the form of taxes on beer, which was brewed predominantly by German Americans. So when other interest groups moved to get an Income Tax Amendment passed, the Drys were right on board with support; revenues from a tax on income (whatever that is, and nobody can know) reduced the FedGov's dependency on the booze tax. So if you now resent handing over to the Feds $1 in every $5 you earn, you have in part the teetotallers to thank. Worse was to come: when after 1915 pressure mounted for US entry to the war on Germany, the Drys skilfully supported that too, with the nasty implication that the brewers were German sympathizers. So if you regret the deaths of 120,000 Americans killed in that needless war, and are like me horrified at the events of later history its result set in motion, we have, in part, to thank the God-fearing Good Templars of Prohibition.
Majority rule is a terrible idea; minority rule, which is what took place in 1920, is worse yet.
Burns did a good job of portraying the chaos that Prohibition caused, and how it first of all turned vast numbers of formerly law-abiding people into "scofflaws." He apparently regretted that; I would see it as a big plus, for a law is never more than a one-sided contract and so has no moral content whatever. It did greatly benefit those looking for criminal opportunity, by handing them something useful to do, and bringing them great fortunes. Burns said that it "corrupted public officials" (dealers in liquor simply bribed them all to look the other way) but in reality those people were corrupted the day they became "public officials", by pretending to have an authority they could not possibly possess. Nonetheless, the chaos was real.
He then turned to account for the repeal of Prohibition, in 1933; and made one major omission.
Fundamentally it had to go because it was unenforcible, and Burns got that right and related it well. It was almost as easy to buy liquor 1920 - 33 as at any other time, for importers, wholesalers and retailers bribed police and judges to leave them alone and in great swaths of the country they were glad to oblige, having no heart for enforcement anyway. Burns also showed me that there was, surprisingly, a political backlash for repeal, led often by women - notably Pauline Sabin, a wealthy New Yorker who was sometime member of the National Committee of the Republican Party, predominantly Dry. But what Burns failed to tell his audience was that time after time, when an alcohol dealer was brought to trial, his jury refused to convict; instead, juries nullified the law.
Juries are the final check on government power, and have been for eight centuries, and so government hates them like poison. Ken Burns is a member of the Establishment, however enlightened, so evidently could not bring himself to point out the role that nullification played - or if perhaps he could, his patrons at PBS would not allow it; one day we may discover which. The fact was that when the FedGov saw that even when it brought a clearly guilty rum-runner before one of its courts the jury would simply let him go, there was no option but to repeal the law before being brought into total ridicule.
One other thing Burns unfortunately omitted: a comparison with today's prohibition on a range of drugs other than alcohol.
There are obvious similarities; it violates individuals' absolute right to ingest to their own bodies whatever substances they so wish; it spawns massive waves of real crime and violence (since traders cannot bring disputes to a civilized arbiter for resolution, they resort to gunfire), the law has no effect whatever on usage, and it provides a ready excuse for government to intrude on all manner of related private domains, notably that of finance (how can "money laundering" possibly harm anyone?!) But there are differences too; while alcohol is enjoyed by probably 75% of adults, other drugs are regularly consumed by only about 8%, or some nine times fewer. Hence, it's much more difficult to marshal political support for repeal; meanwhile although 8% (one in twelve) is just enough for juries regularly to nullify the law, unfortunately government has become much smarter since 1930 in the vicious trick of selecting jurors who will do its bidding; that one in twelve is almost always missing from the jury.
All government will vanish when all other laws too become unenforcible for want of anyone willing to work for it, and in the resulting free society there will be no political "levers" of power for activists to grab; so the possibility then of another Prohibition, of any peaceful behavior at all, is a big round zero. I can hardly wait.