Thursday, November 17, 2011


Nancy and I really enjoyed Ken Burns’ most recent documentary, “Prohibition.” Like anything Burns does, the quality of the work was outstanding.

Thanks to the historical record we know that the 18th amendment was an unmitigated disaster. From the time it was ratified in 1919, America was treated to the daily body counts, huge supplies of bathtub gin, the ever-changing speakeasy passwords (Knock three times…”Tell ‘em Louie sent you.”), and Warren Harding’s “whiskey cabinet.” The booze never stopped flowing, thanks to the birth of a huge criminal enterprise that supplied Americans with what they wanted.   For every hatchet wielded by a Carry Nation acolyte there was a tommy gun placed in the hands of the underlings of Al Capone or Bugs Moran. While the Capone and Moran gangs were busy trying to kill one another off, thousands of Americans (some estimates are as high as 10,000) died from ingesting denatured alcohol or other concoctions supplied by eager bootleggers.

The ecclesiastical motivation, for the most part, was noble. By the turn of the twentieth century, alcoholism was becoming a major problem. America’s church leaders were increasingly put in the unenviable position of having to piece families back together who had been splintered by booze. A significant number of fathers who should have been providing food for their wives and children spent entire paychecks at saloons. It was a social problem that seemed to be begging for a sweeping solution.

One of the things that did surprise us was the extent to which Progressives and Feminists of the period got involved, particularly their partnership with what was basically a para-church movement. The Progressive interest centered in part around their goals for enacting a national income tax and in part to improve social conditions. The primary Feminist motivation was women’s suffrage.

It was a highly successful trinity, with each interest group getting what it wanted. The sixteenth amendment¸ which gave the federal government the power to tax incomes, was enacted in 1913. The eighteenth amendment, prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol, was enacted in 1919. And, the twentieth amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was enacted in 1920.

The three amendments were a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when strange bedfellows form alliances.

The least satisfactory of the three solutions was, clearly, the eighteenth amendment. Its supporters didn’t seem to understand they had outlawed something that people had been using since the dawn of recorded history. They didn’t understand that enacting laws to solve a problem that less than 10% of the people had was bad legislative policy. They didn’t give much thought to the idea of prohibition was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, that telling Americans they couldn’t do something was the surest way to get them to do it. While they were, no doubt, well intentioned, church leaders also failed to consider the possibility that their founder, Jesus, had he been born in America around 1880, might well have been arrested and incarcerated for having turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Worst of all, they never dreamed that all their do-gooding would give birth to one of the largest criminal enterprises in human history. About the only criminal enterprise larger, as Mark Twain’s literary creation, Pudd’nhead Wilson, observed in 1897, was the U.S. Congress. He put it quite eloquently – “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

One of the enduring lessons of Prohibition is that the road to perdition is sometimes paved with the very best of intentions. Burns seemed to think that the willy-nilly use of constitutional amendments to solve social problems has passed. I’d like to think he’s right, but I think he’s a bit optimistic. Do-gooders, particularly today’s Progressives, find it almost impossible to resist the urge to fix the overwhelming majority of us who aren’t nearly as noble as them. These days, allied with state and local government, Progressives have even taken on Happy Meals, soda pop, pizza, chicken nuggets, and just about anything else that makes living around them tolerable. If they had their way we’d all be spending our days eating nothing but carrots. They just can’t leave well enough alone. If the average American is anything like me, being around a Progressive brings on an instant craving for greasy food.

Why, given the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if a generation or so from now one of Ken Burns’ grandchildren produces a documentary on black market cheeseburgers. I can almost see the footage as I write. “Pssst…Yeah, you buddy….Over here in the alley…I got ‘em loaded down with pickles, grilled onions, mustard, ketchup, and thousands of calories. Just give me ten bucks and this baby will be yours to devour.”

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