David R. Henderson  

Prohibition: Then versus Now

The Ethics of Individualism... Cotton, and Slaves, and Arroga...

This will likely be my final post about Daniel Okrent's excellent book The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. This one, appropriately enough, is about the fall and some of the factors that led to it. There's a huge difference in the public reaction to alcohol Prohibition then and drug prohibition now. And the difference makes me somewhat pessimistic.

Okrent tells about prominent newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune running editorials going after the extreme practices of Prohibition enforcers. One editorial highlighted the "terroristic enforcement methods" of customs agents. Another told of a 12-year-old girl being sentenced to 30 days in prison for carrying a quart of liquor across a street in Greenville, South Carolina.

Here's another highlight about Tribune coverage:

An incident that took place just forty miles west of Chicago provoked the Tribune's editors to indulge in an orgy of coverage that in its frequency, its prominence, and its amplitude suggested that Armageddon was at hand. In the town of Aurora, local officers handed the Tribune (and the dozens of papers nationwide that glommed on to the episode) a story it rode for months. [DRH comment: bless them.] In the "peaceful green valley of the Fox River," the Tribune sighed, Mrs. Lillian DeKing "lay bleeding to death in the kitchen of her home." She had been shot "over a few bottles of liquor in the DeKing basement," the paper added. If her husband was a small-time bootlegger, his were hardly the sort of crimes that should bring to the family doorstep "six officers of the law, armed with sawed off shotguns, pistols, machine guns, bulletproof vests, and tear bombs."

Today, by contrast, when SWAT teams are sometimes called in just to serve warrants, such excessive methods are hardly questioned by editorial writers of major newspapers and, even if questioned, do not lead to a long series of editorials. Many people think of Radley Balko as being heroic--and he is--for exposing such methods. The good news is that he now writes regularly for the Washington Post. The bad news is that he is rare whereas in the late 1929s, people doing such exposes were much more common.

Here's more on the Tribune's coverage of the DeKing incident:

The paper capped its coverage with the creation of that tried and true guarantor of public sympathy, a fund for the education of twelve-year-old Gerald DeKing. Not only had little Gerald witnessed the tragic events, he had heroically grabbed his father's revolver and returned fire, hitting a deputy sheriff in the leg. Concerned Chicagoans responded to the Tribune's organ music, and the paper saluted them by publishing their names and the sums they had donated.

Tried and true? Really? If a newspaper today wrote about a kid shooting at a cop with a revolver, would people really be so quick to take the kid's side? Indeed, would there be an alive 12-year-old kid to write about?

There's a huge difference between then and now. I'm not sure about all the reasons. Here are my four, in no particular order:
1. The federalization of enforcement. A big factor in this was the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, begun in 1968, the first major move after World War II, I believe, in which the feds started subsidizing local police in a major way. This subsidization, with the related attenuation of powers of locals to control their police, continues.
2. The para-militarization of police. Part of this is due to #1 above.
3. The fact that a huge percent of people had been regular drinkers just 10 years earlier. (The events above happened in 1929.) They didn't see themselves as criminals and so they sympathized with others whom they didn't see as criminals either.
4. The numbing out of Americans. We are inured to police brutality because it has happened for so long. Put a frog in a pot of hot water vs. put a frog in cold water and warm it gradually, etc. (Please don't bother commenting that this frog analogy is completely fictitious. I know that. I'm making a point about people, not frogs.)

COMMENTS (14 to date)
vikingvista writes:

At some point, actors in the Federal government decided that they could proceed as they wished, without regard to the Constitution, and without the need for amending it. While the need for the 18th Amendment was a protection that didn't succeed, the cultural impact of the repeal of the 18th Amendment has made it politically impossible for future alcohol prohibition, for the foreseeable future.

However, no such amendment was used for the prohibition of other intoxicants, and so there will be no possibility of a repeal establishing sustained protection. It is purely a legislative, and perhaps merely bureaucratic, matter, that will come and go to varying degrees for the remainder of this Republic.

The Federal government has become powerful enough, where the amendment process is now an anachronism. Never again will an amendment be made, as legislative and bureaucratic regulatory options are considerably easier for the government to employ, and rarely effectively challenged.

It is just an inevitable feature of the onward march of monopoly. In time, even Congress will be vestigial, as even Congressmen find that their personal interests are better served through an uninhibited executive or independent regulatory agencies.

Greg G writes:


The norms that established more latitude than you would like in interpreting the Constitution were established by the very people who wrote the Constitution. That latitude is not something new.

The Washington Administration got the Alien and Sedition Acts passed. Virtually no one today would support that much latitude for government in infringing on freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Jefferson got the Louisiana Purchase approved despite the fact that everyone knew he thought he lacked the constitutional power to do it. Most people today do think that was wise. Do you disagree with them?

Even the practice of having the Supreme Court declare laws unconstitutional was a later innovation that came with Marbury versus Madison. It was not envisioned before that and it shocked Jefferson who disagreed with the principle.

On a different topic, David you have convinced me to read that book. Any book that inspires this many posts must be pretty good.

Ray Bawania writes:

Interesting read. Thanks!

Stephen Dawson writes:

The key to this seems to be in the first quotation:

In the town of Aurora, local officers handed the Tribune (and the dozens of papers nationwide that glommed on to the episode) a story it rode for months.
The 'local officers' were presumably the local police. They likely knew, and were even friendly with, the DeKings. Then the Feds show up shooting away.

These days, it's the locals that do the shooting.

Greg G writes:

Oops. That was the Adams Administration for the Alien and Sedition Acts. Still the Founders.

Dick White writes:

I rise in defense of the LEAA, not because I disagree with David's observations but because it holds a soft spot in my heart. It is the only agency, to my knowledge, created with such fanfare by the federal government that was ever, ever, ever disbanded!

Jeff writes:


Regarding #4, I think you're almost right, but that's not the entire story. I think the ugly truth here is that the big crime wave that swept through this country from the late 60's to early '90's changed people's attitudes about the appropriate use of force by police. Part of that, I'm sure, was as a direct result of the war on drugs declared by Nixon, but a lot of it had to do with the social changes wrought in the '60's as well as the economic turmoil caused by the de-industrialization of major cities. You could throw in LBJ's Great Society program, too, I suppose, which brought us all those wonderful public housing projects which quickly became magnets for crime and social pathologies of all different kinds.

The tragic result, I think, was a multi-decade wave of violent crime which divided Americans between "us" and "them," and many decided that they didn't much care how the police dealt with "them." That seems to be changing, lately, as crime has gone down, but it's got a long ways to go, as your post clearly indicates.

vikingvista writes:

Greg G,

Of course. Humans were human then as now, and the incentives of a monopoly exist when the monopoly exists. The single greatest usurpation of rights since discharging British hegemony was the imposition of the constitutional Federal monopoly itself in 1787. But, since the topic of this post was prohibition then and now, is it not appropriate to focus on the those aspects of monopoly progression associated with topic?

And surely that reflects a progression, no? There is nothing Constitutionally different between ethanol and, e.g., cannabis. Nor is there any effective difference in how ethanol was legally treated by Federal authorities between the 18th and 21st Amendments, and how cannabis is treated now. And yet, Amendments were required for the former and not the latter. And of course, the amendment-free prohibition template has been successfully applied to many substances since, and will continue to in the future.

Another example of progression, to get off the prohibition topic, is war. At some point, the US was in the practice of, at least occasionally, providing a formal Congressional declaration of war prior to engaging in war, as required by the CotUS. That Constitutional provision is today effectively null and void, with the closest resemblance we are likely to ever see again to a formal declaration being the House Joint Resolution 114.

The issue is not that monopoly is abusive now but not, e.g., back during the Adams administration. The issue is that monopoly abuses are progressive and cumulative, and the methods of Federal prohibition of intoxicants is an example of that progression.

"Most people today do think that was wise. Do you disagree with them?"

I disagree that it is wise (for those few who even have a say in the matter) to allow governments to remove their restraints. In fact, I find it exceedingly unwise.

Jameson writes:

I suspect that one cannot ignore the effect of class differences and also race upon the modern experience with drug enforcement. I have never seen police brutality in my neighborhood, because I have always lived in middle class neighborhoods. But I always had a bunch of friends who smoked weed. Police activity seems to be directed toward lower class neighborhoods, and the upper and middle classes mostly get along blissfully accepting the myth that all of this brutality inflicted on the rabble is necessary, even deserved.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but folks like Mrs. Lillian DeKing living in the "peaceful green valley of the Fox River" probably seemed more familiar and respectable to the average American, and so their stories generated more sympathy.

Greg G writes:


I was not challenging the appropriateness of your comment, just choosing to comment on a different aspect of the issue. I almost always find your comments appropriate and interesting and wrong in some way.

I do want to challenge this:
"The issue is that monopoly abuses are progressive and cumulative, and the methods of Federal prohibition of intoxicants is an example of that progression."

Since Prohibition was in fact repealed it is a very poor example of a progressive and cumulative ratcheting effect. It is a good example of the potential democracy has for peacefully correcting errors.

Alcohol is different from cannabis in that its use as an intoxicant was a big part of American culture from the very beginning. (I am all in favor of legalizing cannabis by the way)

I also want to challenge the idea that the cause of liberty is in worse shape now than during the Adams Administration. Americans are more free and more prosperous now than ever before in my opinion especially compared to the Adams presidency when slavery was legal and you could be imprisoned for what we would consider today to be an entirely legal criticism of public officials.

Nathan W writes:

It is easier to respect police when there is little/no reason to fear them.

The number of stories about young children and the elderly being tasered by poorly trained (pussy) cops and shootings when there turned out to be no reason do not contribute to good relations between the public, who generally just wants security of person and property.

I saw a video of two unarmed cops in Latin America negotiating with a knife wielding guy who was clearly very angry about something. The tense scene continued for many minutes before the eventual takedown (a tackle). Our highly armed and poorly trained police in Toronto, for comparison, even when outnumbering a knife wielder 20:1, shot a guy multiple, multiple times.

Prohibition is, for reasons I don't want to get in to, a major underlying cause for police to have claimed justification in wanting greater firepower.

An end of counterproductive prohibition could be a necessary step in returning to a situation where the general public can respect the police as people who work in the public service of helping to protect person and property. The status quo is that many people fear that the slightest wrong word could get them tasered, shot, or who even knows what, given the multiplicity of stories of innocent people getting attacking by nervous and poorly trained cops.

Police need to be trained to think before they act/react. I suggest that prohibition falls into this category too. Just consider that ex-police chiefs (and ex-presidents of Latin America) tend to be fairly unanimous that the whole thing is a giant counterproductive mistake.

vikingvista writes:

“Since Prohibition was in fact repealed it is a very poor example of a progressive and cumulative ratcheting effect.”

You have it backwards. You are forgetting that repeal of prohibition required a Constitutional amendment. As I said in my first post, the repeal supports my argument. Don’t expect any more amendments going forward, unless it is one of those still pending. They are simply irrelevant today as they are neither needed to grant the Federal government powers, nor are they of any use in long restraining the government.

“Alcohol is different from cannabis in that its use as an intoxicant was a big part of American culture from the very beginning.“

It is different culturally. It is not different Constitutionally. And prior to the 18th Amendment, neither were Federally prohibited.

“I also want to challenge the idea that the cause of liberty is in worse shape now than during the Adams Administration.”

I’m not sure who has that idea, but if someone does, you are right to challenge it. However, Federal authority over individuals is more strongly enforced and more sweeping than ever before in history, and that will continue to progress in the future just as it has in the past. Consequently, with a few exceptions, abuse of innocents by government agents is more extensive than before. Fortunately, government is not everything in social life.

“Americans are more free and more prosperous now than ever”

Prosperous, for sure. But what you think that has to do with newer versus older government, after looking at the causes of prosperity, I don’t know.

The eradication of British slavery from the continent was too slow of a process, beginning at least as early as 1777 in America, and sweeping the Western world through the 19th century. Rather than being a success of government action, this was hardly a sentiment that governments had much power to stop. But that happened at a time when the world was opening up to the universality of individual rights, and fortunately people still carry some of those beliefs today though few know why. But, the principles of the Enlightenment are no longer widely believed by people. On the contrary, slavery is today accepted as one of the boundless rights of government--much as it was in the era of monarchies--so long as it conforms not to universal negative individual rights, but to egalitarian principles among the ruled (i.e. so long as all subjects are seen to be equally enslaved, and the only masters are in government).

In short, the end of chattel slavery was the result of a bygone era--an era that was coming to an end just as this happy result was being born.

Theory 1: It's the fault of Libertarianism. In days of yore, anti-authoritarians may have been less likely to avoid government work and authoritarians would be working with anti-authoritarians. Today, an anti-authoritarian who seeks government work may consider himself to be a hypocrite. As a result, police forces today consist almost entirely of authoritarians.

Theory 2: The above-mentioned anti-authoritarians got government jobs a few decades ago because of the lack of private-sector jobs in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, they have more opportunities.

Put it together, and you have fewer people in government whose reaction to SWAT teams for post offices or sanitation departments would be to say "Are you nuts?"

NZ writes:

Your #1 is kinda false.

You're treating alcohol prohibition as a separate thing that came before drug prohibition ("Nixon invented the War on Drugs"), but drug prohibition at the federal level started in 1914 (the Harrison Act's centennial is coming up in December) and it was pushed along by the same Progressives who eventually got the Volstead Act passed 5 years later.

It wasn't until after WWII that the Neocons infiltrated the Republican Party, saw the globalist-interventionist potential of the drugs issue, and made it a keystone feature of the new conservative identity based on the notion that it was a good tool for bludgeoning hippies and locking up dangerous blacks.

Before then, drugs were not an issue most Americans cared much about--which is why the Progressives had been able to slip it by. After that, you had people like Nixon running whole campaigns around it.

I think your #4 is kinda false too:

Up until the 1960s there was a broad, growing middle class that was becoming increasingly multiracial, so the tensions you describe were diffused and shared: everyone was more against police brutality and government intrusion, against anyone. These days our society is a lot more fractured and gaps have widened up; people care, but it depends against whom the brutality and intrusion are directed.

Your #3 is sufficient to explain the rest.

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