Question: What got you interested in Prohibition?
Daniel Okrent: My last book was a history of Rockefeller
Center, which I did in the early part of the past decade. And the land
that the Rockefeller is built on was, during the ‘20’s, the heart of the
speakeasy belt in New York, between 48th and 51st Street between Fifth
Avenue and Sixth Avenue. There were 228 brownstones, and they were
largely speakeasies, flop houses, whorehouses, it was really a lousy
neighborhood. And the Rockefeller interests to assemble the land the
needed to acquire the ground leases for each of these buildings. So, I
did a lot of research in the city records and found the Rockefellers
coming up against speakeasy owners who had more political clout then
they did. I said, "How did this happen?" Which is the best way to
begin a book. So, that got me going.
And then I found myself
then wandering in this wonderland of this impossible-to-imagine period,
when in the Constitution, not just by law, but in the Constitution it
said Americans couldn’t get liquor; couldn’t get alcoholic beverages.
And there were only two things in the Constitution that limit the rights
of individuals rather than the rights of governments, the powers of
government. And the two things were, the 13th Amendment, you can’t own
slaves, and the 18th Amendment, you can’t get liquor. Pretty bizarre.
So that set me going.
I think it relates to where we are today
because of the notion of a divided country and what Prohibition was
really was a stand-in issue. There were people who cared a great deal
about Prohibition and they had reason to want liquor to be cut back
because the rampant drunkenness of the 19th century combined with the
fact that women had very few legal rights, did lead a lot of women
particularly, and children, being horribly damaged by the drunkenness
that captured so many of their husbands. It led to bankruptcies,
bringing home disease, ruined marriages
In 1830, the average
adult consumption of liquor – of alcohol is triple what it is today.
So, imagine the society we live in now where the booze seems to be
flowing pretty freely, and then multiply that by three, and even – and
that was on a per capita basis. So, there were people who abstained.
So those who were drinking really drank a great deal. And particularly
in rural areas, and then as the immigrant populations came in, in the
cities as well.
But it was other than the concern about
drinking, was a, as I said, a battle over the control of the country.
The Prohibition was largely, but not exclusively, a movement that came
from the middle of the country, the native born white Protestants who
feared losing their country to the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the
Eastern Europeans who were coming into the cities. It was a really
intense divide in which this stand-in issue could represent everything
else. And I think we are going through exactly the same thing now. And
there is no question that there are people who really don’t like
Obama’s health care, but they really don’t like the people who support
Obama’s health care. And last year the dividing issue could have been
gay marriage. A few years before that, or possibly it is also
abortion. There are stand-in issues that represent a wide, wide range
of issues. And that was the division that we had in this country that
led to prohibition.
Question: What were some lesser-known reasons for
Daniel Okrent: You know, there’s an extraordinary thing
about Prohibition, though there was a real issue about alcohol
consumption, there were three other issues that made Prohibition happen:
the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Income Tax Movement, and World War
I. Now what does these things have to do with alcohol? Well this is
the peculiarity of the theater of politics that things do not seem to be
what they are.
So, the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a lot to
do with the fact that women had no marital rights. They didn’t have any
rights to divorce, they didn’t have property rights. They needed to be
able to express themselves for their own self-protection. And they
recognized that they had kindred spirits in the prohibitionists. So, it
was really, "We’ll support you if you’ll support us." And the Women’s
Christian Temperance Union was the engine; the first engine that really
got he Prohibition Movement going.
Then it was realized by the
people in the Prohibition Movement, "We can’t get rid of alcohol without
something to replace it as a revenue producer," because as much as 40%
of federal revenue came from the excise tax on liquor, going back to the
Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s. So you couldn’t suddenly say, no
liquor, no wine, no beer. You wouldn’t be able to run the government
any longer. So they made common cause then with the populace who wanted
an income tax. And they passed the income tax amendment, the 16th
Amendment in 1913, and only then did it become even possible to
seriously consider the possibility of Prohibition.
World War I, what does World War I have to do with Prohibition? Well,
after Congress had enacted the amendment and it had to be ratified by
three-quarters of the states, during that period World War I begins.
All the brewers have German names. Their names are Anheuser, Busch,
Pabst, Schlitz, Rupert, Schaffer, and on and on and on. And it made it
possible for the Prohibition forces to demonize the brewers as serving
the interests of the Kaiser when we were at war with Germany. And
that’s what put it over the top. So you get these three things that
have nothing to do with each other and really nothing to do with the
issue at it’s center, namely prohibition, making it possible for there
to be, not just the law, but a change in the damned Constitution.
Question: Did banning alcohol have a measureable effect
Daniel Okrent: Well, there was probably an increase in
crime. You could argue that there was for a period a net positive.
Drinking did go down and it remained down. The level of alcohol
consumption in the U.S. did not come back to pre-Prohibition levels
until the 1970’s. In fact, we’re a little bit lower than the 1970’s
now. So, if you think there is too much drinking, it did have a
positive affect in that sense.
Criminal behavior on a large
scale, of course, was rampant. Every time somebody acquired a drink,
every time you bought a drink, or you moved liquor from one place to
another, you were breaking the law. It is also true that the criminal
syndicates, the national syndicate were entirely a product of
Prohibition. Until then, in each city, you might have a criminal
element, a criminal gang that controlled vice of all sorts;
prostitution, gambling, drugs, but there was no reason for them to
stretch beyond the limits of their own neighborhoods, as it were, or
Once you had to move great quantities of alcohol
from one place to another, you needed cooperation. So the mobs in
various cities got together, there was the famous conference in Atlantic
City in 1929, the sort of peace conference in which they divided up the
country and there was one syndicate that agreed not to poach on each
other’s territory. Without Prohibition, there’s no reason to do that.
So, yeah, a lot of increase in crime.
On the other hand, the
image that we have of the ‘20’s, is this era of lawlessness and machine
guns, or was known as the Chicago typewriter; rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, the
sub-machine gun. There were exceptions, obviously, but it was criminal
on criminal warfare. There were not a lot of innocent bystanders who
were hurt by that kind of violence.
Question: What are some of the parallels between
Prohibition and the current drug laws?
Daniel Okrent: What’s comparable – what’s interesting to me about
the comparison to the drug trade today is there is a human appetite that
drugs are satisfying. There is a human appetite that liquor satisfied
and it appears to be the case, I think it’s undisputable, that people
are going to get their drugs, or their liquor, whether or not it is
against the law. The consequence of the limitation on it, the legal
limitation on it, is that the federal government... the government gets
no tax revenue from it. And it’s unable to regulate it effectively.
So, peculiarly, it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition when it
was against the law, then it was after Prohibition, when it was legal.
Prohibition, there was not regulatory system of any kind. It was
simply against the law. After Prohibition, you had age limits. You had
to be 18 or 21, liquor stores couldn’t be open on Sundays, you couldn’t
be near a church. There were closing hours, there was an entire
superstructure of laws that made it possible to control drinking and to
bring in a great deal of revenue. Franklin Roosevelt in October of
1932... he gave a speech in Newark in which he said, “If we brought back
beer alone, that would be a quarter of a billion dollars in the U.S.
Treasury in one year.” And it was. So the notion that we are right now
seeing a similar illegal substance that is nonetheless desired being
traded in huge quantities by criminal syndicates, the notion that that
could be something that’s regulated, made safer, and provide revenue for
the government makes it a very appealing argument for legalization.
Recorded on: April 16, 2010