Will Rogers once said, “Prohibition is better than no alcohol at all.”
Of course the ironic reference alludes to the abundance of alcohol during the years the United States banned the consumption of it with the 18th amendment in 1920 through December of 1933. The overall failure of prohibition reinforces the notion that we humans are most desirous to indulge in that which we cannot have.
Will Rogers went on to say that if the U.S. banned learning that we would be the smartest nation in the world within 5 years. Perhaps not a bad idea? Let’s talk prohibition kids; and learn something while it’s still legal.
When one mentions the word “prohibition” the first idea that pops into most of our minds is the greatest singular example of the “legislation of morality” gone terribly wrong. For example, today many will use the prohibition argument to make the case to legalize marijuana. Yet, upon closer examination, perhaps we have been too hard on the 18th amendment to the constitution over the past 9 decades. Prohibition was an earnest and genuine attempt to solve a woefully widespread social disease in the United States at the time, known as alcoholism.
Prohibition was not the spontaneous brainchild of a slick politician nor an ill conceived impulsive idea from our nation’s leaders spawned to foster political favor. The case for prohibition was being made a full century before it was enacted in 1920 by various “temperance” groups. Quite the contraire to being impulsive, if anything the country was extremely slow in attempting to solve a national crisis. In fact, the problems were so bad many alcohol drinking citizens in the U.S. were in support of prohibition.
How bad was this crisis that even drinkers were willing to make one of their favorite activities illegal? Alert: Hard core statistics ahead.
According to Dr. Jack Blocker (please see this very informative US National Library of Medicine journal article to support many of the claims contained within this blog entry), the problems with alcohol consumption were of epic proportion. Between 1900 and 1913, Americans began to drink more and more. Beer production jumped from 1.2 billion to 2 billion gallons, and the volume of tax-paid spirits grew from 97 million to 147 million gallons. Per capita consumption of ethanol increased by nearly a third, a significant spike over such a short period of time. With this rise in annual ethanol consumption to 2.6 US gallons per capita of the drinking-age population, the highest level since the Civil War, created a real public health problem. Rates of death diagnosed as caused by liver cirrhosis (15 per 100,000 total population) and chronic alcoholism (10 per 100.000 adult population) were high during the early years of the 20th century.
This high consumption of alcohol coupled with the historical context of the subjugation of women (women could not vote until 1920; ironically the same year prohibition was enacted) and the overwhelmingly patriarchal practices of the day, meant alcohol was the primary fuel that caused spousal and child abuse, while tearing up the home and sending shock waves through the entire social fabric.
Prohibition was not all bad, in fact in part it was good – it was like grounding the above drinking kid, sending him to his room and taking his car keys. It is not farfetched to contend that it could easily still be the law of the land today if it not for another major social slash financial crisis: The depression.
One of the primary reasons prohibition was repealed was not necessarily stemming from the unintended consequences of prohibition itself (namely underground organized crime); rather when the stock market crashed in 1929, the country lacked the necessary time and energy to devote its enforcement of prohibition while economical concerns became much more prevalent and the focus of our attention. Prohibition was not cheap and drastically effected the economy in negative ways. I believe it would be a reasonable claim for one to contend that if the stock market did not crash we could very well still be a “dry” country today.
It is my opinion that the mayhem that ensued during the 1920’s and the flourishing organized crime alcohol trade was bound to happen and such activity was to be expected as any major cultural shift has a transitory period in which the culture must adopt. It was growing pains for a transitioning wet to dry country…perhaps we eventually would have solved them had our economy not crashed.
Thus what did we learn from prohibition? Seven things:
1. We learned that many (not all) people will change personal destructive behaviors as a result of public legislation. The number of drinkers plummeted during prohibition and even after its appeal it rose…though never close to the level it was before prohibition (see above Blocker article). In this sense, prohibition worked. By nearly any historical account and quite contrary to what the Rogers above quotation above would have you believe, alcohol consumption and alcoholism drastically decreased during prohibition with a consequential benefit to families and communities.
2. Hundreds of counties today still opt to go “dry.” Perhaps prohibition, despite its national fallout, provided dry options for the country and should one want to live in a dry area, they have the freedom to do so -approximately 10% of the US population today live in a dry county.
3. We learned that people have a strong tendency toward a bipolar self: A public persona and private persona -church by day, speakeasy by night. Many drinkers actually supported prohibition because they believed it would better for society as a whole…of course with the promise that it was still not illegal for one to make their own alcohol for their own personal use. The grape growing and malt industry flourished in the 1920’s. Perhaps what some may consider a double-standard was in reality a willingness by drinkers to sacrifice convenience for the better public good – this assisted by the new presence of women in saloons, see below.
4. Many people want to be governed and have the government’s assistance in self-policing. After its repeal, the threat of prohibition coming back loomed on. It is believed that approximately 40% of Americans supported the return of prohibition in the late 30’s.
5. Say what you will negatively about prohibition though at least it was an attempt to solve one of the largest and widespread problems in our nation’s history. In addition, prohibition was a major wake up call for this country. We had a problem and we needed to confront it. It is no coincidence that when it was repealed December 8, 1933, only 2 years later, in 1935, what is arguably the most effective program to deal with alcoholism in the world, Alcoholics Anonymous, was born. Perhaps without such a drastic measure, prohibition, we would not have seen the creation of effective alternative solutions to deal with alcoholism. Prohibition was an excellent motivator and the fuel for the creation of innovative, non-legislative programs to deal with the problem of excessive alcohol consumption, such as the aforementioned Alcoholics Anonymous -not to mention nearly countless other substance abuse programs.
6. Is it a coincidence that during prohibition we saw the subsequent rise of female rights and powers? The 1920’s was a revolutionary period for women’s rights. Women were finally heard in terms of both supporting prohibition and bringing it to an end. Prior to prohibition women were not allowed in saloons and the unchecked masculine energy ran rampant, hence male-like problems. During the illegal speakeasys, women were as much a part of the saloon scene as men…the feminine energy providing the much needed checkpoint for inebriated male behavior. Prohibition provided the unintended consequence of saloon equality for women -who witnessed first hand the hypocrisy of public abstinence and private drink- which provided a primary motivation leading to prohibition’s demise…a female led endeavor.
7. Finally, the great majority of us believe in in the concept of prohibition- we just differ over what should be prohibited and why. A nation where crystal meth is injected in the streets concerns me. In this sense, I am for prohibition of certain mind altering substances. My guess is so are you. Thus the concept of prohibiting certain items for public use is agreed; we may just disagree on what is prohibited and where.
So next time someone wants to use the “just look at prohibition” argument with you to suggest the legalizing of a substance, tell them to think again or better yet, read my blog. Prohibition was not all bad. Sometimes keeping something underground is the best place to keep it. After all, we were all just one less stock market crash away from being a nation of soft drinks ourselves.
Though to be fair and not perpetuate the schism between public and private selves, I did write this blog for the first time while slightly buzzed. Though if you passed a law prohibiting “blogging while buzzed” I can guarantee more entertaining blogs from this point forward. Hehe.