Prohibition book review: Daniel Okrent’s Last Call

It is difficult to believe there was a time when it was illegal to make, transport or sell alcohol for consumption in the United States. It’s like saying, “Do you remember that decade when it was illegal to play baseball?” Or, “Do you recall when the government banned sex?” Or, “Do you remember when everyone in America who wanted to go to the beach was forced to go to the empty reservoir?” From 1920 to 1933 selling beer to hardworking Joes (all men before the year 1946 were named Joe) could land a bartender in jail. Prohibition is one of the most inconceivable, tragic and comic social experiments in American history, yet, outside of the attention it is about to receive thanks to the new HBO show Boardwalk Empire, it is rarely discussed.

The story of this forgotten era, the ramifications of which are still felt today, is told by Daniel Okrent in the book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which chronicles the story of Prohibition from its roots, to its passage as a Constitutional amendment, to its failure as a policy, to its repeal. I recommend that everyone read this book, if only as a reminder that the United States once had a Constitution.

In order to make booze illegal, prohibitionists had to amend the Constitution. This is because the Constitution was written to protect individual liberties such as prayer and gun ownership and Anderson Cooper. In order to make booze illegal, the do-gooders were forced to change the Constitution, a massively difficult undertaking that in modern terms can only be equated with trying to find the Cleveland Browns a suitable quarterback. Congress was able to amend the Constitution by – and this was a reliable tactic that would be employed by future Congresses – completely ignoring the Constitution, breaking the law and undermining democracy. Following the 1920 Census, which would have given “wet” districts such as big cities more representation, a “dry” Congress ignored the Census, even though one of the few things the Constitution asks Congress to do is count the people and apportion districts based on that count. Fearing its legislation would not pass, or would be repealed, the “drys” blocked reapportionment until June 1929, almost a full decade after Prohibition was passed.

Can you imagine if this happened today? Glenn Beck’s chalkboard would have a fist-sized hole punched through it.

As a result, rural areas, which favored Prohibition, were overrepresented and favorable legislation passed. Okrent writes: “The dry refusal to allow Congress to recalculate state-by-state representation in the House during the 1920s is one of those political maneuvers in American history so audacious it’s hard to believe it happened.” Classy authors such as Okrent can’t write WTF?!?!?!?!?!?!? :( in the middle of a chapter, but this is Okrent’s way of saying, WTF?!?!?!?!?!?!? :(

we want beer, sign, protest, prohibition

As law, Prohibition was a complete failure for two simple reasons: 1.) Everyone ignored it 2.) It was unenforceable. Other than that — worked great. Many of the legislators who passed the law kept drinking. Many of the people who voted for those legislators kept drinking. Many of the law enforcement officials responsible for enforcing the laws passed by the still-drinking legislators and still-drinking voters kept drinking. The overall number of people who drank did decrease, but the volume of drink consumed by those who did drink increased. Solving the issue of problem drinking through force actually led to more problem drinking – a sad and still-ignored fact that has led to some college presidents calling for the lowering of the drinking age. As for enforcement, there was more incentive for law enforcement officials and local politicians to defy Prohibition, because, well, you can’t get rich by denying the public something it wants, but you can get rich (and avoid being shot with Tommy guns) by looking the other way. In 1927 Chicago Mayor Bill Thompson promised: “When I’m elected, we will not only open (speakeasies) people have closed, but we’ll open 10,000 new ones.” This was the mayor of the nation’s second-largest city openly defying the Constitution. Yes, politicians in Illinois ignore the Constitution and break the law all the time, but seldom so publicly.

Grand government schemes always produce outcomes that can charitably be called unintended consequences. Thanks to Prohibition, we now have the income tax, NASCAR and a well-organized, multilevel, international mafia, among other things. The income tax was devised as a means of replacing the tax money government collected on legitimate alcohol sales. So next time you look at your paycheck and lament that a large chunk of it is missing, you can thank Prohibition. NASCAR was born from the southern rum runners who souped-up their cars to outrun the law. So next time you seethe over how much money Jeff Gordon makes turning left for a living, you can thank Prohibition. The mafia stepped in to supply a demand that legitimate businesses were forbidden from supplying, and along the way murdered way more people than beer magnate Adolphus Busch would have. Next time you watch The Godfather, you can thank Prohibition. (OK, it was not a total loss.)

We can learn many lessons from Prohibition, the most important of which is that laws designed to change mostly harmless behavior ultimately get people killed, destroy legitimate businesses, undermine the rule of law and make Jeff Gordon rich. Ironically, author Daniel Okrent’s meticulous detailing of this era could only have been accomplished through years of sober thought, thus proving that the only way to actually get people to stop drinking is to task them with comprehensively chronicling the failure of Prohibition.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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