Enduring Legacy of Prohibition


Rarely in modern times does Washington withdraw from an area of domestic affairs. December 5 marks the seventy-sixth anniversary of the 21st Amendment, repealing alcohol prohibition.

One of the most energetic political causes in the late 19th and early 20th century was the “temperance” movement, which aimed to ban liquor. The movement comprised religious conservatives, nativists who wanted to crack down on immigrants and minorities, and progressives, who defined their era by their dedication to preemptive justice and their ambitious goal to create a new, refined American man through the force of central planning and federal government power.

The progressive and prohibitionist movements culminated after World War I, when anti-German propaganda contributed to an American taboo against beer and when the spectacle of drunken debauchery of U.S. soldiers on military bases provided the last excuse needed to attempt the “Noble Experiment” of prohibition.

In 1919, the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act nationally outlawed alcohol, a drug used by civilizations for millennia. Liquor violations quickly dominated the criminal justice system. By 1924, the population of federal prisons had almost doubled. A 1923 congressional study found that state attorneys spent about 44 percent of their time on prohibition cases. Corruption consumed the legal system. Prohibition chief Lincoln C. Andrews testified in 1926 that 875 Prohibition Bureau officials had been dismissed for corruption, bribery and misconduct.

Criminal gangs controlled the illegal booze market. Five thousand speakeasies were operating in Chicago alone. Violent crime infested the cities. By the onset of the Great Depression the experiment had been such a failure that even many of its most vocal proponents had turned against it. When prohibition ended in 1933, the violent gangs closed their operations and, despite the increasing poverty of the Depression era, rates of homicide and other crimes plummeted.

Today, as tens of millions of Americans drink in moderation, we can hardly imagine that such behavior was federally verboten not too long ago. When we see the remaining problems associated with alcohol, we must fight the urge to relive the social experiment of prohibition that turned our institutions completely rotten and plagued our streets with bootleggers and shootouts.

Yet much of the prohibitionist legacy remains. Four years after the 21st amendment, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act into law, prohibiting the drug. Whereas politicians had once respected the Constitution enough to recognize that it must be legally amended to federally ban alcohol, the war on other drugs continues without any constitutional justification.

Today’s drug war is much worse than alcohol prohibition was. We have half a million people in prison, an overwhelmed judicial system, militarized enforcement, assaults on civil liberties, a foreign policy distorted by drug-war goals and, according to many economists, about twice as many homicides as we would expect if drugs were legal.

All the problems with alcohol prohibition persist in relation to today’s illicit drugs, except on a larger scale.

The puritanical mindset behind alcohol prohibition persists. Drinking ages, open-container laws, state-level alcohol distribution regulations and DUI laws have become ever more draconian, leading to overcrowding jails, erosion of individual liberties, cruel disruption of the lives of the peaceful, and dubious results in actually making our roads and cities safer. Alcoholic drinks with caffeine may soon be outlawed by the FDA. Meanwhile, cigarette smokers are being targeted on the margins. Politicians threaten legislation against transfats and other allegedly unhealthy foods.

It was a great day when alcohol prohibition was lifted and the liberty to drink was restored to the American republic. But the people never fully grasped the significance of prohibition as a governmental usurpation of individual choice and family and community life. Alcohol prohibition is over, thank goodness. But the heavy-handedness of the progressives’ greatest social experiment continues today under the banner of other crusades—with the same predictable results.

Anthony Gregory is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of American Surveillance: Intelligence, Privacy, and the Fourth Amendment (University of Wisconsin Press for the Independent Institute). His previous book, The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King's Prerogative to the War on Terror, won the 2013 PROSE Award for Best Book in Law and Legal Studies.

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