Prohibition and Ideological Coherence

So, I just finished the absolutely fabulous, Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent.  You should read this book.  Seriously.  Failing that, at least read the excellent review in the Times or the terrific interview with the author on Fresh Air (that’s what turned me onto it).

Anyway, so many great stories from this book.  I’ve been regaling my friends with tales from Prohibition for the past few weeks.  For example, doctors could prescribe “medicinal” whiskey.  Due to an exemption for “sacramental” wine, parish priests and rabbis became huge purveyors of alcohol.  Millions of Americans took to brewing their own beer and making their own wine with legally purchased “malt starter” and special grapes shipped across the country from California. Pierre Dupont led the charge to eliminate Prohibition in the hopes that the restoration of alcohol taxes would eliminate the need for the income tax he so detested.

Among all this, what I, not surprisingly, found the most fascinating was the political aspects in both the rise and fall.  What most intrigued me was the ideological grouping of Prohibition with other issues.  Essentially, Prohibition supporters were liberal/progressive on most other issues.  They supported women’s suffrage, an income tax, and limits on child labor.  (Admittedly, the first two were strategic as they figured that women would support Prohibition and that an income tax was needed to make up for the loss in revenue from alcohol taxes). Those opposed to Prohibition– at least among political elites– were largely old-school, keep the government out of everything libertarian-conservatives.

Thus, it was really interesting reading about all this as I think the Prohibition supporters were totally nuts to think they could change thousands of years of human behavior and cultural tradition by fiat, yet I was quite sympathetic to their overall political outlook.  They really wanted Prohibition to promote the social good and alcohol most definitely creates a disproportionate share of social problems.  Meanwhile, I was rooting for the anti-Prohibition forces whom I generally found reprehensible in much of their other politics.  I honestly am not sure where I found have fallen myself back in the day (I’m not much of a drinker at all, so I would have little problem with the issue personally, but I really don’t like the idea of the government outlawing it).   Anyway, the Political Scientist in me would love to have the equivalent of NES data on the relationships of political attitudes back then.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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