David R. Henderson  

The Grisly Public Choice Behind the End of Prohibition

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Separation and Dr. Pangloss... Let's Bet on the West...

Writing about Prohibition in his One Summer (about the United States in 1927), Bill Bryson tells a story about a tragic incident that may well have helped lead to the end of Prohibition. Earlier in the book, Bryson had told of how the single-minded Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, one of the chief people pushing for Prohibition, had taken down powerful politicians who opposed Prohibition. After that, people didn't dare cross him.

Bryson writes:

Despite his manifestly unthreatening appearance, Wayne Bidwell Wheeler was for a time the most feared and powerful man in America, and--unless you believe that people should die in agony for having a drink--possibly the most misguidedly evil as well.

We later learn why Bryson makes this strong moral judgement. Wheeler "insisted that the government poison industrial alcohol." Parenthetically, while many of my libertarian friends think that Calvin Coolidge was the best U.S. President of the 20th century, and I am inclined to agree with them, Coolidge's letting this happen is a huge negative.

But August 13, 1927 did not turn out well for Mr. Wheeler. Bryson writes:

What is known is that while Mrs. Wheeler was preparing to cook dinner at the cottage that evening, her oil stove exploded as she lit it and she was drenched from head to toe in flaming oil. Mrs. Wheeler's eighty-one-year old father rushed in from a neighboring room and suffered a fatal heart attack at the sight of his daughter in flames. Wayne Wheeler, who had been resting upstairs, arrived a moment later. He stifled the blaze with a blanket and summoned an ambulance, but his wife's burns were too severe and she died that night in the hospital. The shock of the incident was more than Wheeler could bear. Three weeks later, he suffered a heart attack of his own and died.

With Wheeler dead, Prohibition lost its spirit and momentum, as well as its chief fund-raiser. Within three years, the Anti-Saloon League would be so hard up that it would have to cancel the newspaper subscription at its Washington office. Within six years, Prohibition was dead.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
gwern writes:
What is known is that while Mrs. Wheeler was preparing to cook dinner at the cottage that evening, her oil stove exploded as she lit it and she was drenched from head to toe in flaming oil.

What a way to go. Thank goodness for electric and induction stoves.

David R. Henderson writes:

@gwern,
Yes, that’s the other message: the huge benefits of relatively free markets.

Hazel Meade writes:

How horrible.

What does this have to do with public choice or poisoning alcohol? Not sure that "karma" should be visited on the innocent wife and father-in-law...

konshtok writes:

I always assumed that it was the depression that killed prohibition

NZ writes:

The powerful and charismatic people behind drug prohibition have died long ago. I can't name a single powerful and charismatic person who explicitly defends drug prohibition today, and yet drug prohibition rolls onward.

Instead, there are now a lot of powerful and charismatic but discreet defenders of drug prohibition, some of them perhaps not even aware of the cause they are championing. Why didn't alcohol prohibition endow us with the same legacy?

Don Boudreaux writes:

I prefer this alternative public-choice story of both the rise and the decline of national alcohol prohibition in the United States. :)

Mike Buckland writes:

Daniel Okrent wrote about Wheeler in his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. In a lot of ways he was way ahead of his time in understanding the political process. A couple of Okrent's notes:

-- Wheeler ran one of the first single issue organizations. He could funnel lots of money to the campaign of any legislator that supported prohibition. Politicians of both parties got lots of cash from him. Those who opposed him, especially in the Midwest and South, were washed away in the flood of cash.

-- He was one of the few who understood that the real Prohibition would come from the administrative rules that implemented it. He was active in defining permitted uses for alcohol, enforcement rules, and other pieces of the puzzle that made it so onerous. This part of his legacy is underrated.

-- The accident of his daughter may have hastened the decline of his organization, but the decline was already there. It's hard to keep people interested in something that's already accomplished. The ASL was already a shadow of its former self after nearly a decade of Prohibition.

His obituary mentioned something like When the history of this era is written the most remembered man of the time will be Wayne Bidwell Wheeler (from memory). But almost nobody remembers him now. That's sad. He was extremely influential in his time and an innovator on how to influence the democratic processes. Unfortunately we forget how much damage can be done by extremely smart and well meaning men.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Why did it take the 18th amendment to allow prohibition of alcohol and thus the 21st to repeal it... but not for any other "controlled" substances?

Would like to hear the justifications for that...

Capt. J Parker writes:

Of course, the poisoning of industrial ethanol remains to this day. The justification for the poisoning is that it distinguishes it from alcohol useable for human consumption which carries a $27/gallon Federal excise tax. So, the evil Bryson is long gone but our Washington betters still think we should die in agony for having a drink that doesn't contribute to their treasury.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Sorry, Should have been evil Wheeler NOT evil Bryson.

JK Brown writes:

Oh, I was really hoping the tragedy had driven him to drink and he didn't know his wife had replaced the old unadulterated household alcohol with his new murderous mixture. Now that would be karma.

BTW, Mark J. Perry has a quotation of the day that illustrates the problem with busybodies.

Mark Bahner writes:
I can't name a single powerful and charismatic person who explicitly defends drug prohibition today, and yet drug prohibition rolls onward.

I'm sure there are many more, but there's Bill O'Reilly:

Bill O'Reilly strongly supports continued federal laws against marijuana

Brad writes:

Mark, it's called the DA-police-judiciary-jailer industrial complex

LD Bottorff writes:

Unfortunately we forget how much damage can be done by extremely smart and well meaning men.
Well said, Mr. Buckland. I thought of that as I read Okrent's excellent book. Some who read these pages might dismiss folks like Bill O'Reilly and Bill Bennett as simple fools or even evil, but they are both smart and their intentions are good.

The same could be said for a large number of people on both sides of the political divide.

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