How Prohibition Was Similar to Today's Health Care Debate

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


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.

What were some lesser-known reasons for Prohibition?

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.  

And then 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.

Did banning alcohol have a measureable effect on crime?

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 their cities.  

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.

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.  

During 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