Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

The Straight Dope

A law-enforcement official breaks open casks of illicit alcohol under Prohibition. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)
The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, by Lisa McGirr (Norton, 330 pp., $27.95)

A decade or two ago, it seemed that every journalistic discussion of British rock music had to mention Margaret Thatcher. If the song or band in question was from the late 1970s, it reflected “the shadow of impending Thatcherism”; if from the 1980s, it was either “a typical product of Thatcher-era complacency” or “a spirited riposte to the Thatcher regime”; if from the early 1990s, it embodied the “post-Thatcher hangover.” As a friend once pointed out, “not only did Thatcher revolutionize the U.K.’s economy and restore its place on the global stage, but she also controlled the entire British music industry for 20 years.”

It’s always tempting to ascribe all the major changes, trends, and events of a given era to some single development — social, political, technological, or what have you. And for Harvard professor Lisa McGirr, writing about the interval between world wars in America, that first cause is Prohibition. Not only did it greatly enrich urban gangsters, inspire a widespread loosening of morals, and lead to a general rise in crime, she writes; it was also responsible for the FDR-led party realignment, feminism, the increasing prominence of identity- and class-based politics, jazz, modernism, and “a disruption and renegotiation of the parameters and norms of acceptable bourgeois propriety.” Most important of all, it was also directly responsible for the vast expansion of the federal government and its powers (hence her subtitle).

Sometimes the author gets a bit carried away with her thesis. Its central assertion, that Prohibition set the stage for the muscular, intrusive New Deal state, amounts to saying “Prohibition was so unpopular and ineffective that Americans demanded its extension to every area of life.” The statement that, under Prohibition, “the Bill of Rights, once an abstract set of principles, took on more substantive meaning” (and thus led to the civil-rights movement) ignores the prior century and a half of contentious constitutional history. McGirr acknowledges other causes for the social and political changes that began in the 1920s and 1930s (World War I, Depression, urbanization, mass immigration and its cessation, automobiles, radio, movies, and women’s suffrage, to name a few), but still traces everything that happened then, and much that has happened since, to Prohibition — including, somehow, the Rehnquist Court. Post hoc ergo propter hoc much? She also has a habit, almost a tic, of characterizing all Prohibition advocates as “Protestant” (oh, for the days when Methodists were extremists!), even though plenty of Catholics and others supported the dry cause. And she never misses an opportunity to point out (truthfully) that immigrants and the poor suffered the most from it all.

Yet, for all her heavy-handedness, McGirr makes a solid case for the unique disruptiveness of Prohibition, based on the central role that drinking played in so many areas of American life. Saloons were a vital site for social interactions, and alcohol was a key lubricant at gathering spots ranging from workingmen’s circles to ethnic clubs, political groups, fraternal organizations, beer gardens, weddings, religious festivals, and laborers’ lunchrooms. Over a shot and a beer, in barrooms across the country, ward bosses kept track of local concerns and dispensed patronage, and the issues of the day were hashed out, social networks formed and expanded, and ethnic and class solidarity solidified. This is why opposition to Prohibition in ethnic and working-class neighborhoods was very strong, approaching unanimity. In many places and among many groups, drinking had put down deep roots in American culture.

And Prohibition actually worked (as the author mentions exactly once in the book, with an air of unpleasant necessity). Alcohol consumption, legal and illegal, dropped by about half over two decades starting in the early 1910s (when state prohibition measures began to be widely adopted) and did not return to its former levels until about 1970. For good or ill, anytime you prohibit something that takes money or effort to procure — alcohol, marijuana, narcotics, tobacco, abortion, guns — you will have less of it.

Even so, it is universally (and correctly) conceded that Prohibition was a bad idea, a solution much worse than the problem it was meant to solve. The main reason everyone knows about this today is that Prohibition is an obvious precedent for the current “war on drugs.” Advocates on the left, on the right, and in the center have proposed various declare-defeat-and-go-home schemes for legalizing addictive drugs (marijuana is a separate issue, and there may be other illegal drugs that could be legalized without doing much harm). These range from unrestricted sales to legalization with heavy taxation (as with cigarettes), always with heavy and hopeful doses of rehab counseling. William F. Buckley Jr. famously endorsed legalization decades ago, but the details of the specific plan he proposed, as set forth in a 1996 National Review cover story, are rarely mentioned: He wanted the federal government to manufacture drugs itself and sell them at the cost of production.

While the Buckley plan would eliminate liability worries, avoid enriching drug barons, and reduce the need for junkies to steal to support their habits, turning Uncle Sam into a drug dealer appears unlikely ever to gain much support in Congress (and if GovDrugs is run as efficiently as Obamacare or the post office, the pushers might just as well stay in business). Still, after repeal of Prohibition, Americans abandoned bootleg liquor with great relief and switched to legal providers. Something similar is happening today, in slow motion, with marijuana. Would legalization of addictive drugs also lead to a flourishing private-sector industry?

That would require granting pushers strong and extensive legal protection against tort lawyers (not to mention FDA bureaucrats), and considering how much the tobacco industry, even with a powerful lobby behind it, has had to pay to keep selling its much less harmful products, it seems highly unlikely that Americans would give drug pushers a degree of impunity far beyond that allowed to sellers of hot coffee. What seems much more likely is that instead of a busy free market, the current network of criminal suppliers would stay in place and continue suppressing attempts at competition, “legitimate” or not. In other words, legalization would reward the worst people in the Western hemisphere by increasing their customer pool and vastly reducing their expenses. This may be a price we have to pay, but it must be acknowledged and taken into account.

While McGirr makes no specific policy recommendations, she brings up the connection between Prohibition and drugs repeatedly (beginning with her title) and devotes the final section of her book to exploring their parallels. You won’t be surprised to hear that she considers the “war on drugs” (which, she points out, actually began in the Prohibition era) to be as ill conceived as the “war on alcohol.”

An argument against drug prohibition that is based on the results of alcohol prohibition rests on the (usually unspoken) assumption that the two are directly comparable. Yet many readers of McGirr’s book will be struck with how different they actually are. Not only are addictive drugs much more destructive to the user than liquor, but our anti-drug efforts do not usually include sanctioned raids by vigilantes, deputized civilians, or the Ku Klux Klan (an extensive practice during Prohibition, as McGirr shows); there is little or no religious hostility involved, as there was during Prohibition; poor neighborhoods, instead of being resentful targets of enforcement, are often the biggest supporters of it; there are no mass demonstrations in favor of legalization of addictive drugs (an absence that McGirr attributes to a “forcefully embedded consensus”); and, most of all, there are no positive uses for these drugs outside their physiological effect. An opium den does not serve the same function as a corner bar; a lunchtime beer is entirely different from a shot of heroin.

To be sure, if you consider it axiomatic that people should be allowed to put whatever they want into their bodies, regardless of what it does to them and others, that settles the question: An axiom is an axiom. But if you allow for a need to balance pluses and minuses, you must take into account the much greater harm resulting from these drugs, to the user and to the social fabric, when compared with alcohol (despite the label “recreational,” which sounds like it was invented by a narco-marketing consultant), and consider whether the appalling toll that the drugs take on people’s lives is worth the appalling costs, monetary and societal, of enforcing laws against them.

The Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own firearms that are commonly used for hunting, self-defense, sport shooting, and other ordinary activities, but not those with primarily military or criminal applications. In analogous fashion, it could make sense to allow consumption of alcohol, which has many commonplace uses that do not destroy lives, while prohibiting addictive drugs. There are certainly strong arguments to be made in favor of legalization, but as McGirr’s book shows, simply invoking Prohibition is not one of them, based as it is on a category error.

James Bryce wrote that “the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” In her lively, comprehensive, and scrupulously researched social history of Prohibition, Lisa McGirr may have fulfilled this function better than she intended.

Fred Schwarz — Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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