Lisa McGirr’s scholarly but hard-hitting and thoroughly documented exposé of the role of Prohibition in its contribution to the cancerous growth of statism, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, should be the touchstone of all future studies and analyses of why the country is in such poor shape. This is the State we recognize today, the one that demonizes smoking with bogus statistics and ubiquitous propaganda yet depends on and collects revenue on tobacco sales, the one that demonizes “recreational drug” use but prohibits pharmaceutical companies from perfecting and releasing life-saving drugs, the one that criminalizes private gun ownership by private citizens and would leave them defenseless against gun-toting criminals who do not care about the law and who will always get guns.
This is the State whose entrenched educational political establishments work to mold all Americans into docile, obedient ciphers and drones, but whose experts and managers feel themselves exempt from their own “social engineering” imperatives and expect to be indemnified against disastrous consequences of their failed policies. This is the State that will fine property owners for draining mosquito-infested bogs or seize their property so that corporations can build “environmentally friendly” headquarters, or so that some “endangered” or “protected” animal species can thrive. This is the State that will chip away at one’s freedom of speech, and keep American blacks on the welfare “plantation” in the name of entitlements and “compassion.”
Our current, post-Prohibition, super- State has a vested interest in continuing its policies even when they are proven, costly, and destructive failures. Look at solar energy. Look at wind-powered towers. Look at light bulbs. Look at what McGirr called the federal “penal state,” created by Herbert Hoover and which has exploded to dozens of prisons today with hundreds of thousands of inmates, many of them sentenced for having violated arbitrary federal laws.
McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard, deftly knits together all the contributing factors leading, first, to Prohibition and the enactment of the 18th Amendment, then to all the salient influences that led to the repeal of the 18th Amendment some fourteen years later. The Amendment, otherwise known as the Volstead Act, was passed in September 1919, and went into effect on January 16, 1920. Between passage and repeal the county rode a heady and often violent carousal of defiance and criminal enterprise, of property destruction and death, of terror from government “revenuers” and vigilante Prohibition enforcers ranging from righteous “volunteer” Volstead armies to a deputized Ku Klux Klan.
The War on Alcohol is an eye-opener. It does not dwell on the Jazz Age or flappers or the Charleston. It focuses on the 19th century origins of the temperance movement, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. The temperance movement was a copasetic fellow traveler with the Progressive Movement, which aimed at creating a “just” society of egalitarianism dominance over Americans with the muscle of the State.
In the name of the “noble experiment” of enforced sobriety and “clean living,” the State created a monster in itself and in the fostering of nearly invincible criminal gangs and cartels.
In a Facebook posting in which recommended McGirr’s book, I touched on one of her central revelations that explains yesterday and explains today:
In the book I'm reviewing, "The War on Alcohol," by Lisa McGirr, what is happening now parallels what happened in 1928: Droves of life-long Republicans switched to the anti-Prohibition candidate and Democrat Al Smith because most people wanted repeal of the 18th Amendment. Al Smith was the unbeatable spoiler because he voiced the sentiments of the "common man."
We see the same thing happening here today. Life-long Democrats are switching to the "GOP" and Donald Trump, even in Congress. That's because most Americans sense that the "same ‘ole, same ‘ole" policies of establishment Democrats and Republicans offer nothing but continued decline, corruption, and socialist policies. Democrat FDR capitalized on this and defeated Smith in the run-up to the 1932 nomination and election. Smith was a mixed bag, but FDR was a statist through and through. He also came out, after a change in campaign strategy, against Prohibition. People voted for him and against Republican Herbert Hoover, who was for a stringent enforcement of the Prohibition. What people wound up getting in the end, after repeal, was a glass of beer, in exchange for an authoritarian state and vastly expanded federal powers over everyone’s lives, property, happiness, and livelihoods.
Many people were for that, because they wanted "something done" about crime and the Depression. People turned to the federal government to "solve" all the problems which were basically the consequences of government economic and regulatory policies.
The question today is: What is Donald Trump actually "for"? Cruz, Rubio, and others are all "same 'ole" politicians good at pulling the wool over people's eyes. Trump doesn't do that. I'm leery of Trump because he hasn't really articulated a consistent policy. I'm not really sure what he's "for." Less government? Getting the government out of the economy, out of education, out of trade? People who are pro-Trump, notably a large number of black Americans, are reacting to Trump from a "sense of life" disgust with the political establishment. As McGirr demonstrates, we got rid of Prohibition, but got a vastly expanded welfare and regulatory state as a result.
As McGirr ably and convincingly demonstrates, the federal government simply built on what was established during Prohibition (one can trace things back to Woodrow Wilson and WWI, but Wilson didn't have the whole federal government at his beck and call, although under his regime we got the income tax and the Federal Reserve, and also the first "war on drugs.") When Prohibition was repealed, the federal government recalibrated its "war-fighting" capabilities to target narcotics. Organized crime switched from bootlegged beer to “illicit” and “dangerous” drugs as its main "money-making" racket. There's no difference between the activities, means, ends, and philosophy between the Prohibition Bureau and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), except that the DEA is significantly greater in scope and power.
The lesson to be learned by Americans is that you can't have a state that "protects" you from the designated “evil” of the day, and also stays out of your life. As Ayn Rand remarked so many decades ago, a "sense of life" isn't enough to defend your freedom and liberties.
As McGirr repeatedly shows, enforcement of Prohibition victimized mostly the poor, minorities, and the “foreign born.” Arrests, convictions, and imprisonment fell on anyone who tried to keep body and soul together by making, selling, or imbibing bootleg. The full force of enforcement fell not on the wealthy or on organized criminal gangs, but on those least able to resist the invasions and incursions on their liberties by crusading government (and often corrupt) agents, bureaucrats, and “hang ‘em” high judges. The purpose of Prohibition was to instill fear and obedience in ordinary Americans and create an “upright,” patriotic, and civic-minded electorate. It failed.
A tenacious residue of Puritanism has always resided in the American sense of life that rises to the surface and becomes a crusade against anything that provokes its ire. It obliterates the general benevolent and tolerant approach to individual life that can stamp American character. It has usually taken on an emotionalist revival house religious character, impervious to reason and calm reflection, calling down on “sinners,” if not the wrath of God, then the wrath of the State. This phenomenon even occurred before and after American Revolution in the form of the Great Awakening. In the absence of an explicit philosophy of reason in everyday life, and after a period of Americans living their own lives and minding their own business but wishing good will to others, enough of them to make noise would allow that infection to color their outlook on the world, and would “get religion.” In turn they would browbeat and persecute anyone who did not share their fervor for “doing the right thing” in the name of society and the “public good.”
Or, they would get State religion and claim that if God would not “make things right,” then the State could, should, and would.” Regardless of the new cause, and regardless of their age or education, they would become “social justice warriors” ranging from militant anti-smokers to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. With repeal and FDR, the expansion of State powers evolved from pious women holding prayer meetings outside saloons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to an empowered federal, state, and local governments dictating myriad things and actions it now regulates, controls, taxes, and even prohibits.
McGirr remarks on the general miasma of the State as the miracle worker for all social problems.
Prohibition sparked a new debate over federal power in the era of otherwise conservative retrenchment. Its manifest successes and failures contributed to widely altered understandings of government’s purview. Despite the relative moderate Progressive Era regulatory apparatus – such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission or the dramatic but brief expansion of federal power during the First World War, the federal government was rarely visible at a local level. National power had usually been exercised in imperial expansion or the capture and reorganization of land and territory, from the West to the Panama Canal. Outside of wartime, most Americans only experienced the federal government through visits to their local post offices….
To many opponents of Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment signaled the government’s capture by a highly mobilized minority, the “tyrannical power of the Billy Sundays” as one ethnic newspaper put it. In response, opponents of the law mobilized so that they might grasp the reins of power for themselves and in the process steer the state in a new direction. (pp. 61-62)
And what is that “new direction”? It is unfettered collectivism, the worship of an unrestrained State unashamedly and without scruple employing government power against the individual, against families, against minds.
William Hogarth's 1751 "Gin Lane" on the evils of gin in the right hand panel, and "Beer Lane"on the beneficent virtues of beer in the left. An early and effective campaign against the unregulated consumption of alcohol.
In 18th century Britain, the government waged several campaigns against the consumption of gin, whose name was derived from genièvre (French)) and from jenever (Dutch), both of which meant "juniper." This was to reduce the crime rate in especially London and to reduce the number of deaths resulting from drinking doctored gin. At a time when it was hazardous to drink water in the cities and in the rural areas, men turned to spirits of all kinds, but particularly to gin, which more often than not contained toxic chemicals and poisons. Gin could kill one even though it was extracted from boiled water. The government encouraged men to drink beer, which as a rule underwent more rigorous boiling and production processes. William Hogarth (1697-1764), an engraver and printer, published in 1751 a satirical cartoon called “Gin Lane,” which depicted the lethal effects of gin for the individual and for society.
In America, Prohibition made war against not only “bathtub” gin but against beer, as well. It and its anti-liquor advocates in and out of government sought to fit Americans into the straightjacket of total abstinence. That crusade failed.
The anti-everything statists picked up Humpty Dumpty and from the pieces put together a voracious, omnivorous juggernaut drunk on the narcotic of power.
The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, by Lisa McGirr. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 330 pp.