How Prohibition Was Similar to Today's Health Care Debate

Question: What got you interested in Prohibition?
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Daniel Okrent: My last book was a history of Rockefeller \r\nCenter, which I did in the early part of the past decade.  And the land \r\nthat the Rockefeller is built on was, during the ‘20’s, the heart of the\r\n speakeasy belt in New York, between 48th and 51st Street between Fifth \r\nAvenue and Sixth Avenue.  There were 228 brownstones, and they were \r\nlargely speakeasies, flop houses, whorehouses, it was really a lousy \r\nneighborhood.  And the Rockefeller interests to assemble the land the \r\nneeded to acquire the ground leases for each of these buildings.  So, I \r\ndid a lot of research in the city records and found the Rockefellers \r\ncoming up against speakeasy owners who had more political clout then \r\nthey did.  I said, "How did this happen?"  Which is the best way to \r\nbegin a book.  So, that got me going.  

And then I found myself \r\nthen wandering in this wonderland of this impossible-to-imagine period, \r\nwhen in the Constitution, not just by law, but in the Constitution it \r\nsaid Americans couldn’t get liquor; couldn’t get alcoholic beverages.  \r\nAnd there were only two things in the Constitution that limit the rights\r\n of individuals rather than the rights of governments, the powers of \r\ngovernment.  And the two things were, the 13th Amendment, you can’t own \r\nslaves, and the 18th Amendment, you can’t get liquor.  Pretty bizarre.  \r\nSo that set me going.  

I think it relates to where we are today \r\nbecause of the notion of a divided country and what Prohibition was \r\nreally was a stand-in issue.  There were people who cared a great deal \r\nabout Prohibition and they had reason to want liquor to be cut back \r\nbecause the rampant drunkenness of the 19th century combined with the \r\nfact that women had very few legal rights, did lead a lot of women \r\nparticularly, and children, being horribly damaged by the drunkenness \r\nthat captured so many of their husbands.  It led to bankruptcies, \r\nbringing home disease, ruined marriages

In 1830, the average \r\nadult consumption of liquor – of alcohol is triple what it is today.  \r\nSo, imagine the society we live in now where the booze seems to be \r\nflowing pretty freely, and then multiply that by three, and even – and \r\nthat was on a per capita basis.  So, there were people who abstained.  \r\nSo those who were drinking really drank a great deal.  And particularly \r\nin rural areas, and then as the immigrant populations came in, in the \r\ncities as well.  

But it was other than the concern about \r\ndrinking, was a, as I said, a battle over the control of the country.  \r\nThe Prohibition was largely, but not exclusively, a movement that came \r\nfrom the middle of the country, the native born white Protestants who \r\nfeared losing their country to the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the \r\nEastern Europeans who were coming into the cities.  It was a really \r\nintense divide in which this stand-in issue could represent everything \r\nelse.  And I think we are going through exactly the same thing now.  And\r\n there is no question that there are people who really don’t like \r\nObama’s health care, but they really don’t like the people who support \r\nObama’s health care.  And last year the dividing issue could have been \r\ngay marriage.  A few years before that, or possibly it is also \r\nabortion.  There are stand-in issues that represent a wide, wide range \r\nof issues.  And that was the division that we had in this country that \r\nled to prohibition.

\r\n Question:
What were some lesser-known reasons for \r\nProhibition?
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Daniel Okrent: You know, there’s an extraordinary thing \r\nabout Prohibition, though there was a real issue about alcohol \r\nconsumption, there were three other issues that made Prohibition happen:\r\n the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Income Tax Movement, and World War \r\nI.  Now what does these things have to do with alcohol?  Well this is \r\nthe peculiarity of the theater of politics that things do not seem to be\r\n what they are.  

So, the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a lot to \r\ndo with the fact that women had no marital rights.  They didn’t have any\r\n rights to divorce, they didn’t have property rights.  They needed to be\r\n able to express themselves for their own self-protection.  And they \r\nrecognized that they had kindred spirits in the prohibitionists.  So, it\r\n was really, "We’ll support you if you’ll support us."  And the Women’s \r\nChristian Temperance Union was the engine; the first engine that really \r\ngot he Prohibition Movement going.  

Then it was realized by the \r\npeople in the Prohibition Movement, "We can’t get rid of alcohol without\r\n something to replace it as a revenue producer," because as much as 40% \r\nof federal revenue came from the excise tax on liquor, going back to the\r\n Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s.  So you couldn’t suddenly say, no \r\nliquor, no wine, no beer.  You wouldn’t be able to run the government \r\nany longer.  So they made common cause then with the populace who wanted\r\n an income tax.  And they passed the income tax amendment, the 16th \r\nAmendment in 1913, and only then did it become even possible to \r\nseriously consider the possibility of Prohibition.  

And then \r\nWorld War I, what does World War I have to do with Prohibition?  Well, \r\nafter Congress had enacted the amendment and it had to be ratified by \r\nthree-quarters of the states, during that period World War I begins.  \r\nAll the brewers have German names.  Their names are Anheuser, Busch, \r\nPabst, Schlitz, Rupert, Schaffer, and on and on and on.  And it made it \r\npossible for the Prohibition forces to demonize the brewers as serving \r\nthe interests of the Kaiser when we were at war with Germany.  And \r\nthat’s what put it over the top.  So you get these three things that \r\nhave nothing to do with each other and really nothing to do with the \r\nissue at it’s center, namely prohibition, making it possible for there \r\nto be, not just the law, but a change in the damned Constitution.

\r\n Question:
Did banning alcohol have a measureable effect \r\non crime?
\r\n

Daniel Okrent: Well, there was probably an increase in \r\ncrime.  You could argue that there was for a period a net positive.  \r\nDrinking did go down and it remained down.  The level of alcohol \r\nconsumption in the U.S. did not come back to pre-Prohibition levels \r\nuntil the 1970’s.  In fact, we’re a little bit lower than the 1970’s \r\nnow.  So, if you think there is too much drinking, it did have a \r\npositive affect in that sense.  

Criminal behavior on a large \r\nscale, of course, was rampant.  Every time somebody acquired a drink, \r\nevery time you bought a drink, or you moved liquor from one place to \r\nanother, you were breaking the law.  It is also true that the criminal \r\nsyndicates, the national syndicate were entirely a product of \r\nProhibition.  Until then, in each city, you might have a criminal \r\nelement, a criminal gang that controlled vice of all sorts; \r\nprostitution, gambling, drugs, but there was no reason for them to \r\nstretch beyond the limits of their own neighborhoods, as it were, or \r\ntheir cities.  

Once you had to move great quantities of alcohol \r\nfrom one place to another, you needed cooperation.  So the mobs in \r\nvarious cities got together, there was the famous conference in Atlantic\r\n City in 1929, the sort of peace conference in which they divided up the\r\n country and there was one syndicate that agreed not to poach on each \r\nother’s territory.  Without Prohibition, there’s no reason to do that.  \r\nSo, yeah, a lot of increase in crime.  

On the other hand, the \r\nimage that we have of the ‘20’s, is this era of lawlessness and machine \r\nguns, or was known as the Chicago typewriter; rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, the \r\nsub-machine gun.  There were exceptions, obviously, but it was criminal \r\non criminal warfare.  There were not a lot of innocent bystanders who \r\nwere hurt by that kind of violence.

\r\n Question:
What are some of the parallels between \r\nProhibition and the current drug laws?
\r\n

\r\nDaniel Okrent:
What’s comparable – what’s interesting to me about \r\nthe comparison to the drug trade today is there is a human appetite that\r\n drugs are satisfying.  There is a human appetite that liquor satisfied \r\nand it appears to be the case, I think it’s undisputable, that people \r\nare going to get their drugs, or their liquor, whether or not it is \r\nagainst the law.  The consequence of the limitation on it, the legal \r\nlimitation on it, is that the federal government... the government gets \r\nno tax revenue from it.  And it’s unable to regulate it effectively.  \r\nSo, peculiarly, it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition when it \r\nwas against the law, then it was after Prohibition, when it was legal.  

During\r\n Prohibition, there was not regulatory system of any kind.  It was \r\nsimply against the law.  After Prohibition, you had age limits.  You had\r\n to be 18 or 21, liquor stores couldn’t be open on Sundays, you couldn’t\r\n be near a church.  There were closing hours, there was an entire \r\nsuperstructure of laws that made it possible to control drinking and to \r\nbring in a great deal of revenue.  Franklin Roosevelt in October of \r\n1932... he gave a speech in Newark in which he said, “If we brought back\r\n beer alone, that would be a quarter of a billion dollars in the U.S. \r\nTreasury in one year.”  And it was.  So the notion that we are right now\r\n seeing a similar illegal substance that is nonetheless desired being \r\ntraded in huge quantities by criminal syndicates, the notion that that \r\ncould be something that’s regulated, made safer, and provide revenue for\r\n the government makes it a very appealing argument for legalization.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

While Prohibition was certainly about drinking, it was also a stand-in issue in the battle among various groups over control of the country.

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