The Law of Unintended Consequences Has Not Been Repealed



Title: Last Call

Rating: 5 Stars

Some time ago, I read Last Call, by Daniel Okrent.  It’s a history of Prohibition.  It discusses how it was passed, how it was enforced, how it was bypassed, and very briefly, how it was repealed.

I found it to be both entertaining and informative. Among the things that interested me were:

  • In some ways, I kind of miss the days when racism was obvious and blatant. Nowadays, it’s more subtle, and therefore, more insidious.  At the turn of the century, it wasn’t quite so subtle.  My personal favorite is the cheap gin created to market specifically to African Americans.  The name?  Black Cock Vigor Gin. Um…wow.
  • On a similar front, pretty much as soon as it was proposed, the Mississippi legislature, after 15 minutes of debate, passed the prohibition amendment.  Pretty effective and efficient legislature you’d say, right?  That same legislature did not pass the amendment to outlaw slavery until 1993.  Um…you know, they had other things to do, right?
  • Politics truly do make strange bedfellows.  The so-called “Drys”, which were the ones pushing the amendment were truly a motley collection.  The main organization driving this was the Anti Saloon League.  They were the classic single issue organization.  They didn’t care what else you believed as long as you were for Prohibition.  They teamed up with the suffragettes.  Drunken men making off with the family’s wages was an obvious concern to women.  Fair enough.  Therefore, it makes sense for the ASL to team up with the suffragettes.  Once the women had the right to vote, then that would mean a lot more dry votes.  Not so obviously, the ASL teamed up with Southern racists (starring such wonderful men such as Cole Bease of South Caroline, who once said that education could “ruin a good field hand and make a bad convict”).  They were obsessed with drunken black men having their way with the fair maidens of the South.  The Southern lawmakers themselves (not such a dry bunch personally) were pretty confident that they could get their alcohol through other means but wanted to keep alcohol out of the hands of the lower classes.  Let’s not forget the Northeastern Progressives, oh so convinced that they can bring about the perfectibility of man by legislating his way to morality.  Such a toxic brew somehow managed to coalesce successfully on this one issue.
  • Interestingly enough, once the amendment was proposed in 1918, there was an immediate need to get it passed before 1920.  The 1920 census was going to make obvious the migration of the population from the country to the city.  The cities, full of those filthy Irish, Italian, and central European immigrants, were known to be strongly against prohibition.  It was important to get the amendment passed before these cities could get their fair representation.
  • Once passed, American culture changed.  Hypocrisy came to the forefront.  Since alcohol was allowed for medicinal purposes, this opened up a tremendous loophole.  Doctors regularly prescribed alcohol for various ailments.  My favorite prescription…”Take three ounces ever hour for stimulant until stimulated”.  Saloons closed and promptly re-opened as drug stores.  During the 20’s, Walgreen’s store grew from 20 stores to 525.  This would not be the only fortune made during Prohibition that still looms large today.
  • Since alcohol was now illegal, it was obviously unregulated.  Therefore, alcohol quality declined precipitously.  To mask horrible flavor of the alcohol, mixers started to be used.  This, in conjunction with the fact that with no alcohol people began exploring alternative drinks, directly led to the soft drink world that we live in today. Considering that there’s a non-trivial number of people that have drawn a positive correlation between obesity in today’s adults and children to excessive soft drink consumption, did Prohibition indirectly cause one of today’s largest health problems?
  • People could not drink in the US but they could drink in international waters.  Thus started the cruise to nowhere, where people got on a boat and sailed around, say, the Caribbean for a couple of days before ending up back where the they started. Prohibition birthed the modern cruise industry.
  • Cuba, where the rum flowed freely, became a popular vacation resort.  This in turn led to casinos being built and organized crime moving in.  This led to corruption in the Cuba government, terminating with Castro overthrowing Batista.  An argument can be made that Prohibition ultimately brought communism to our hemisphere and nearly led to a nuclear war during the Bay of Pigs.
  • Similarly, the whole concept of organized crime came to the fore during Prohibition. This is obvious, but still a significant historical development.
  • In New York City, so many people were arrested for violating Prohibition that there was no way to process them all.  An agreement was made that if they pled guilty to the crime that they’d get a reduced sentence.  Thus, Prohibition directly led to the idea of plea bargaining.
  • Finally, women used to sneak their alcohol in various home remedies.  With the rise of illegal speakeasies and the resulting increase of licentiousness, women abandoned the foul tasting home remedies and started frequenting speakeasies.  Thus for the first time, men and women could drink together in what passed for a public setting. It’s not too touch to imagine what this led to.  Thus Prohibition indirectly led to women being treated as equals in public as well as to the sexual revolution.

What finally brought about the end of Prohibition?

Did you think that people recognized the folly of their ways?  That making illegal an act that millions of people perform only ends with millions of people breaking the law and ultimately eroding respect for the law? Um…no.

Ultimately, what brought down Prohibition was the previous amendment, that which created the income tax.  Before the income tax, a significant percentage of the revenue from the US government came from taxes and duties on alcohol.  The ASL realized this and thus they were one of the forces behind the income tax amendment as a means to replace the funds that the US government would lose once Prohibition was passed.

However there were several people that were stridently against the income tax.  And, since they had last names like DuPont, they had the financial means to make their objections known.  They thought that they could get Prohibition repealed, reinstitute the taxes on alcohol, and then get relief from their income tax burden.  They had the money, resources, time, and the ears of politicians.  Other factors were at work, but they were the leading people that pushed the anti-Prohibition forces and ultimately led to its repeal.

Yes, taxes and import duties were re-instated on alcohol once it was legal again.  Alas for the elite, the new President, Franklin Roosevelt, had other ideas for their money.  Thus, although they won the battle, they lost the war and the income tax has been a part of our lives ever since.

This is a very interesting chapter in American History.  I’m glad that I was able to learn so much about it.  Now when I go to the Thread and Needle, the ‘secret’ upstairs part of the local speakeasy, Tavern Law, I understand more of the history that inspired it, including to but not limited to the 1920’s pictures of nude women on the walls.


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