Lisa McGirr’s scholarly
but hard-hitting and thoroughly documented exposé of the role of Prohibition in
its contribution to the cancerous growth of statism, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition
and the Rise of the American State, should be the touchstone of all future
studies and analyses of why the country is in such poor shape. This is the State
we recognize today, the one that
demonizes smoking with bogus statistics and ubiquitous propaganda yet depends
on and collects revenue on tobacco sales, the one that demonizes “recreational
drug” use but prohibits pharmaceutical companies from perfecting and releasing
life-saving drugs, the one that criminalizes private gun ownership by private
citizens and would leave them defenseless against gun-toting criminals who do
not care about the law and who will always get guns.
whose entrenched educational political establishments work to mold all
Americans into docile, obedient ciphers and drones, but whose experts and
managers feel themselves exempt from their own “social engineering” imperatives
and expect to be indemnified against disastrous consequences of their failed
policies. This is the State that will fine property owners for draining
mosquito-infested bogs or seize their property so that corporations can build
“environmentally friendly” headquarters, or so that some “endangered” or “protected”
animal species can thrive. This is the State that will chip away at one’s
freedom of speech, and keep American blacks on the welfare “plantation” in the
name of entitlements and “compassion.”
post-Prohibition, super- State has a vested interest in continuing its policies
even when they are proven, costly, and destructive failures. Look at solar
energy. Look at wind-powered towers. Look at light bulbs. Look at what McGirr
called the federal “penal state,”
created by Herbert Hoover and which has exploded to dozens of prisons today with hundreds
of thousands of inmates, many of them sentenced for having violated arbitrary
professor of history at Harvard, deftly knits together all the contributing
factors leading, first, to Prohibition and the enactment of the 18th Amendment,
then to all the salient influences that led to the repeal of the 18th Amendment
some fourteen years later. The Amendment, otherwise known as the Volstead Act,
was passed in September 1919, and went into effect on January 16, 1920. Between
passage and repeal the county rode a heady and often violent carousal of
defiance and criminal enterprise, of property destruction and death, of terror
from government “revenuers” and vigilante Prohibition enforcers ranging from
righteous “volunteer” Volstead armies to a deputized Ku Klux Klan.
flappers or the Charleston. It focuses on the 19th century origins of the
temperance movement, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the
Anti-Saloon League. The temperance movement was a copasetic fellow traveler
with the Progressive Movement, which aimed at creating a “just” society of
egalitarianism dominance over Americans with the muscle of the State.
the “noble experiment” of enforced sobriety and “clean living,” the State
created a monster in itself and in the fostering of nearly invincible criminal
gangs and cartels.
posting in which recommended McGirr’s book, I touched on one of her central
revelations that explains yesterday and explains today:
the book I’m reviewing, “The War on Alcohol,” by Lisa McGirr, what is
happening now parallels what happened in 1928: Droves of life-long Republicans
switched to the anti-Prohibition candidate and Democrat Al Smith because most
people wanted repeal of the 18th Amendment. Al Smith was the unbeatable spoiler
because he voiced the sentiments of the “common man.”
see the same thing happening here today. Life-long Democrats are switching to
the “GOP” and Donald Trump, even in Congress. That’s because most
Americans sense that the “same ‘ole, same ‘ole” policies of
establishment Democrats and Republicans offer nothing but continued decline,
corruption, and socialist policies. Democrat FDR capitalized on this and
defeated Smith in the run-up to the 1932 nomination and election. Smith was a
mixed bag, but FDR was a statist through and through. He also came out, after a
change in campaign strategy, against Prohibition. People voted for him and
against Republican Herbert Hoover, who was for a stringent enforcement of the
Prohibition. What people wound up getting in the end, after repeal, was a glass
of beer, in exchange for an authoritarian state and vastly expanded federal
powers over everyone’s lives, property, happiness, and livelihoods.
people were for that, because they wanted “something done” about
crime and the Depression. People turned to the federal government to
“solve” all the problems which were basically the consequences of
government economic and regulatory policies.
question today is: What is Donald Trump actually “for”? Cruz, Rubio,
and others are all “same ‘ole” politicians good at pulling the wool
over people’s eyes. Trump doesn’t do that. I’m leery of Trump because he hasn’t
really articulated a consistent policy. I’m not really sure what he’s
“for.” Less government? Getting the government out of the economy,
out of education, out of trade? People who are pro-Trump, notably a large
number of black Americans, are reacting
to Trump from a “sense of life” disgust with the political
establishment. As McGirr demonstrates, we got rid of Prohibition, but got a
vastly expanded welfare and regulatory state as a result.
McGirr ably and convincingly demonstrates, the federal government simply built
on what was established during Prohibition (one can trace things back to
Woodrow Wilson and WWI, but Wilson didn’t have the whole federal government at
his beck and call, although under his regime we got the income tax and the
Federal Reserve, and also the first “war on drugs.”) When Prohibition
was repealed, the federal government recalibrated its “war-fighting”
capabilities to target narcotics. Organized crime switched from bootlegged beer
to “illicit” and “dangerous” drugs as its main “money-making” racket.
There’s no difference between the activities, means, ends, and philosophy
between the Prohibition
Bureau and the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA), except that the DEA is significantly
greater in scope and power.
lesson to be learned by Americans is that you can’t have a state that
“protects” you from the designated “evil” of the day, and also stays
out of your life. As Ayn Rand remarked so many decades ago, a “sense of
life” isn’t enough to defend your freedom and liberties.
repeatedly shows, enforcement of Prohibition victimized mostly the poor,
minorities, and the “foreign born.” Arrests, convictions, and imprisonment fell
on anyone who tried to keep body and soul together by making, selling, or
imbibing bootleg. The full force of enforcement fell not on the wealthy or on
organized criminal gangs, but on those least able to resist the invasions and
incursions on their liberties by crusading government (and often corrupt)
agents, bureaucrats, and “hang ‘em” high judges. The purpose of Prohibition was
to instill fear and obedience in ordinary Americans and create an “upright,”
patriotic, and civic-minded electorate. It failed.
residue of Puritanism has always resided in the American sense of life that
rises to the surface and becomes a crusade against anything that provokes its
ire. It obliterates the general benevolent and tolerant approach to individual
life that can stamp American character. It
has usually taken on an emotionalist revival house religious character,
impervious to reason and calm reflection, calling down on “sinners,” if not the
wrath of God, then the wrath of the State. This phenomenon even occurred before
and after American Revolution in the form of the Great Awakening. In the
absence of an explicit philosophy of reason in everyday life, and after a
period of Americans living their own lives and minding their own business but
wishing good will to others, enough of them to make noise would allow that
infection to color their outlook on the world, and would “get religion.” In
turn they would browbeat and persecute anyone who did not share their fervor
for “doing the right thing” in the name of society and the “public good.”
get State religion and claim that if God would not “make things right,” then
the State could, should, and would.” Regardless of the new cause, and
regardless of their age or education, they would become “social justice
warriors” ranging from militant anti-smokers to Occupy Wall Street to Black
Lives Matter. With repeal and FDR, the expansion of State powers evolved from
pious women holding prayer meetings outside saloons in the late 19th and early
20th centuries to an empowered federal, state, and local governments dictating
myriad things and actions it now regulates, controls, taxes, and even prohibits.
the general miasma of the State as the miracle worker for all social problems.
over federal power in the era of otherwise conservative retrenchment. Its
manifest successes and failures contributed to widely altered understandings of
government’s purview. Despite the relative moderate Progressive Era regulatory
apparatus – such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade
Commission or the dramatic but brief expansion of federal power during the
First World War, the federal government was rarely visible at a local level.
National power had usually been exercised in imperial expansion or the capture
and reorganization of land and territory, from the West to the Panama Canal.
Outside of wartime, most Americans only experienced the federal government
through visits to their local post offices….
Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment signaled the government’s capture by a
highly mobilized minority, the “tyrannical power of the Billy Sundays” as one
ethnic newspaper put it. In response, opponents of the law mobilized so that
they might grasp the reins of power for themselves and in the process steer the
state in a new direction. (pp. 61-62)
“new direction”? It is unfettered collectivism, the worship of an unrestrained
State unashamedly and without scruple employing government power against the
individual, against families, against minds.
Britain, the government waged several campaigns against the consumption of gin, whose
name was derived from genièvre (French)) and from jenever (Dutch),
both of which meant “juniper.”
This was to reduce the crime rate in especially London and to reduce the number
of deaths resulting from drinking doctored gin. At a time when it was hazardous
to drink water in the cities and in the rural areas, men turned to spirits of
all kinds, but particularly to gin, which more often than not contained toxic
chemicals and poisons. Gin could kill one even though it was extracted from
boiled water. The government encouraged men to drink beer, which as a rule
underwent more rigorous boiling and production processes. William Hogarth
(1697-1764), an engraver and printer, published in 1751 a satirical cartoon
Lane,” which depicted the lethal effects of gin for the individual and for
war against not only “bathtub” gin but against beer, as well. It and its
anti-liquor advocates in and out of government sought to fit Americans into the
straightjacket of total abstinence. That crusade failed.
picked up Humpty Dumpty and from the pieces put together a voracious, omnivorous
juggernaut drunk on the narcotic of power.
War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, by Lisa McGirr. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 330 pp.