11 Things I Learned From "Last Call"

Just finished reading Last Call, Daniel Okrent's history of the rise and fall of Prohibition. While Prohibition and its signifiers - think: flappers, moonshine, Elliot Ness, Al Capone, etc. - are never far from the cultural conversation, it remains a wonder how the United States could have passed a constitutional amendment forbidding the sale of alcohol...and then repealed that amendment 12 years later. Okrent provides plenty of background and cultural context,

1. A "wet" was someone against Prohibition, while a "dry" was in favor. The plural of "dry" was "drys."

2. While the stereotype of the "drys" as stiff-necked blue-noses was certainly based in reality, the real link between the drys was progressive politics. That's right. The ultimate expression of American Puritanism was a project of the same "vanguard of the future" types who were also calling for a more equitable society and redistribution of wealth. One early dry even referred to herself as a "Christian Socialist."

3. In fact, drys got behind two of the biggest progressive causes of their day - the income tax and women's suffrage - because they would advance the prohibition cause, the income tax by replacing federal excise taxes on alcohol and womens' suffrage because women were the motivating force for Prohibition.

4. Drys were also behind some of the worst causes of their day: nativism, racism, anti-semitism, you name it. The Klan was a major dry organization, among others. Drys even welcomed WW1 as an opportunity to malign American brewers, who were almost all German. Of course, drys refused to compensate the liquor industry after it was regulated out of (legal) existence. This was just one of many unconstitutional acts in the dry cause.

5. Along with Al Capone, and Detroit's Purple Gang, a major bootlegger was Sam Bronfman, of Seagram's fame. That's right, the Bronfman family fortune is literally built on crime, just like Balzac said. Joe Kennedy, on the other hand, was almost certainly not involved in bootlegging, although he skirted the edge of the law in setting up his post-Prohibition liquor deals. Canadian and British liquor companies as prestigious as Hiram Walker, Dewars, and anyone else you could imagine, also systematically sold liquor to smugglers, although they were very careful to avoid any association with illegality.

6. People went to ridiculous lengths to get a drink during Prohibition. I'm talking drinking paint thinner, rowing out to international waters to buy rum off of blockade runners (this was why international waters were lengthened from three miles to 12 miles out), booze cruises to nowhere, etc.

7. The haphazard manner in which the feds enforced Prohibition was due in large part to the oft-maligned likes of Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Andrew Mellon, who didn't like Prohibition and did as little as possible to enforce it. Stingy Republicans in Congress appropriated the bare minimum to fund enforcement activities, resulting in a poorly paid, corrupt body of Prohibition agents. In fact, Herbert Hoover was the first president to really try to enforce the law, passing a number of draconian sentencing laws...and sparking a backlash that led to Repeal. Hoover really couldn't do anything right.

8. Congressional apportionment was a major concern of the drys both in passing the amendment and then defending it against repeal. In fact, the drys gave themselves a deadline of passing the amendment by no later than 1920 because they feared that apportionment after the 1920 census would permanently reduce the number of dry congressional districts. Indeed, drys managed to stave off post-1920 apportionment for eight years, a fact that has been lost to history.

9. When repeal came, it came very quickly. At the beginning of 1932, most wets despaired of seeing Prohibition repealed in their lifetime. By the end of the year, the repeal amendment had been ratified. One factor that sped things along: rather than have the repeal amendment ratified by vote in state legislatures, it was ratified by specially convened state conventions.

10. A lot of today's commentators like to draw comparisons between the failure of Prohibition and the failures of the War on Drugs. While I think an analogy could be drawn between prohibition of alcohol sales and marijuana, that's as far as it goes. Prohibition failed because alcohol had been a legal product enjoyed by the great majority of American adults. You just can't say the same about, say, heroin.

11. If you are wondering, yes, I do think the Prohibition experience has a lot to say about today's political wars over health care reform. Just as Prohibition's opponents couldn't countenance a constitutional amendment banning the sale of a particular product, health care reform's opponents object to a constitutional requirement that they be required to buy a particular product. And, just as Prohibition's passage was the last act of a sort of Victorian progressivism that was already fading away, health care reform's passage may well be seen as 20th century Big Government liberalism's last stage before fading away into irrelevance. Certainly, if we could repeal an amendment to the Constitution, repealing Obamacare, which is "just" a statute should be within the realm of possibility.

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