Topic for discussion: was Prohibition the Progressive movement’s *greatest* disaster?

Having been reminded that today (January 16th) is the anniversary of one of the greatest social policy disasters (if not the absolute worst) in American history:

…I am left to wonder: was it also the greatest policy disaster of the Progressive movement? Because, let us be honest here: Prohibition/temperance was a Progressive scheme from start to finish. The popularity of it among rank-and-file Progressives at the time is well known, and only surprising to those who have not received an adequate enough education on the subject*.  But was it the worst Progressive policy ever?

  • Arguments for yes: Prohibition, of course, resulted in a decade-long exercise in societal hypocrisy where a large section of the population routinely broke the law – and the more affluent parts of said population easily evaded the legal consequences from doing so.  We also, again of course, managed to encourage the rapid growth of organized crime in this country by giving them the opportunity to make a ridiculous amount of money from acquiring and disseminating an illegal substance… and as soon as Prohibition was over, that existing infrastructure went right into branching out into other illegal drugs with nary a hiccup.  Finally – and this is not trivial, actually – domestic beer quality dropped catastrophically; a dropt that it took us almost a century to recover from.
  • Arguments for no: Well, let’s see.  There was the income tax. There was the direct election of Senators.  There was the drastic increase in the size of government that resulted from the previous two points. There was the entire institutionalized racism** thing – oh, yes, Woodrow Wilson was acting in perfectly Progressive terms, in no small part to the entire eugenics thing***. All in all, when you compare Prohibition to widespread segregation and dubious genetic policy… the mere banning of the sale of alcohol can appear to be, and forgive me for saying it, rather small beer.

I think that you can make an argument either way, honestly. What does everybody else think?

Moe Lane (crosspost)

*Which, admittedly, probably means ‘most people.’

**Which, by the way, was even more widespread than you might think.  Unless you happen to have Italian, Irish, Polish, or Jewish ancestors who came to the United States before about 1930 or so. In that case, you probably have any number of family stories to ensure that I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know.

***I give Salon(!) credit for tackling the subject, but the ugly truth of the matter is that, absent World War II, the eugenics movement would have probably been a viable concept in American political discourse right up to the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement.  And wouldn’t that have been a mess.

24 thoughts on “Topic for discussion: was Prohibition the Progressive movement’s *greatest* disaster?”

  1. At the risk of sounding like a wonk, I think direct election of Senators might have been worse for us in the long run. The FBI mostly had beaten the Mafia down by the 60s and 70s, but the evils of popularly elected Senators will be with us forever, barring a convention of the states or a Second Revolution.

  2. 1) Focusing only on the federal level is effectively revisionist history. There are grounds to think that effective examination requires covering a minimum of a hundred years of history.
    2) It did not create incentive to criminality for alcohol manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Such was baked into the system that predated prohibition.
    3) Since when were Americans all that strictly and uniformly law abiding? One could say the same about that constitutional amendment that read fairly, banned the Democrats from lynching freed slaves, and systemically disenfranchising them. It was done anyway.
    4) The drop in beer quality may well have been associated with the drop in quantity that I’ve read about. That drop in quantity consumed may relate to the viability of the post prohibition system of lawfully regulating the consumption of alcohol.
    5) Immigrants are not the only ones with oral history.
    6) Item: laws against selling alcohol to indians on reservations.
    7) A lot of the feeling behind the Drys was formed in certain living conditions. Historians coming from a city background, or who get their oral histories from places as unhygienic as certain European countries seem to miss this.
    8) Temperance predates the progressives, and really, can not be said to have been finished.
    9) This is neglecting the extent to which folks writing the history are defeatists about the FDA being able to control substances, who at the same time pretend that going their way couldn’t see a return of patent medicine.
    10) Eugenics is a viable concept in political discourse from the civil rights period to today, under the trade name abortion.

    1. 8) Temperance predates the progressives …
      I seem to recall temperance pledges in antebellum America being mentioned in several of Mark Twain’s novels. But the Temperance movement, the Eugenics movement, and the Progressive movement have something very important in common: reliance on government coercion to further the Glorious Cause of the perfectibility of mankind.
      … and really, can not be said to have been finished.
      And red diaper communists have told me much the same thing about their Glorious Cause, too.

      1. You really should include abolition and women’s suffrage on your list. Those movements had a huge overlap with the anti-saloon movement.
        Unfinished in the sense that if a few teetotals still exist, Temperance is not dead in the same way that the Shang dynasty is dead.

    2. 2) Wasn’t the whole alcohol distribution system we have now created in response to the repeal of Prohibition? Or is there something else you’re referring to?

        1. For this alone, I shall praise Jimmy Carter.
          And damn Libby Dole.
          Back when I turned 18, I couldn’t legally possess or consume alcohol.
          But I could make it. Legally, even.

      1. Short version is that in the colonial era, there was the pub. Later on the Saloon. Prohibition created the speak easy when the saloons were shut down. Bars are purely a post prohibition phenomena. The other factor besides prohibition that may be involved in the bar is child labor laws meant that the younger teens could not so easily afford recreational drinking. Maybe also bottling of beer meant that a bar could stock several brands.
        As for what I was getting at, Mickey Finn predated Prohibition. The wild west and the roaring twenties were not as isolated and independent as one would think.

  3. I really have to abstain from comment. Since I’m a Free Methodist, I would probably have supported the temperance movement at the time. I think the previous poster is also correct, the dry movement predates modern progressivism. If the various books I’ve read are correct, it started to gather steam in the 1880’s. (When are we saying progressivism started? The 1910’s maybe?). (See, I said I would abstain from comment and then did not.

    On point, they’re biggest disaster may be incorrectly allowing government appropriating social security investment. ( I could say social security in general, but I don’t think it would be so bad if handled like a retirement fund that the government doesn’t get to dip in to).

    1. Social Security, or maybe government pension funds in general might be the biggest impending disaster, but it’d be hard to argue that it’s already caused huge amounts of harm. Well, more than any other tax, anyway.

    2. The progressive movement became dominant in the 1890s, but had been gaining steam before then.

      1. Weren’t you the guy that tried to convince someone that it was Republican intervention in the south that caused that stretch of relative poverty? As opposed to it being caused by the corruption endemic in segregation, the same as how corruption causes a lot of the third world’s poverty?

        1. Not that I’m aware of.
          I will agree that corruption is the major reason the third world is such a miserable place.
          But I will note that Reconstruction was a pretty horrible experience, during which corruption was exceedingly common. Combine that with the loss of life and property during the war, the debts the Confederate States and their citizens owed, the lack of a manufacturing base, and we’re not talking happyfuntimes. Generational poverty isn’t exactly a surprising outcome.
          Although I’ll cede that segregation likely made it last longer than it should have.

          1. I’d suggest that the Japanese/European recovery after WWII, and Mexico’s divergence in terms of economic conditions from the United States might support the argument that what is done to a people in the short term is less significant than what they do to themselves.
            I think the impact of the civil war and especially reconstruction was dramatically overstated by the Democratic Party as a legitimating narrative, and to distract from what part their policies played in causing problems.
            Single party states naturally grow corrupt. The Republicans had, what, ten, fifteen years to get settled before they were out? On the outside, however long it was between the outbreak of the Civil War and the passing of the Posse Comitatus act.
            Whereas, the Democrats pretty much had a monopoly in the South antebellum. Whereas they had the South as a preserve for about eighty years, and an overwhelming presence in certain big cities to the current day. For the same time period, a lot of heavily Republican territory had enough Democratic presence that they could not assure a lock on local elections. I submit that there has been a far greater impact in this manner on the institutional culture of the Democratic Parties.
            I could argue that if the Democratic Parties of the South had not lost their ability to keep the scalawags under control, it would have been Detroit from the Mason-Dixon line to the Gulf of Mexico.
            Why do I consider this pertinent?
            The Democrats had a lot of political capital. Including some I might consider stolen from those disenfranchised by segregation. I would be inclined to describe the situation as the alcohol industry hiring that political capital. This might have caused the wet/dry conflict to drag out longer than it would have otherwise. Which of course leads to an excessive number of might have beens as far as the eventual outcomes go.

  4. Given all the Julia Voters, I’m even starting to wonder about the wisdom of passing the Nineteenth Amendment. Trouble is, there are too many stupid and foolish male voters, too.

  5. Mr. John Hay, secretary to Mr. Lincoln, wrote in his diary on September 29, 1863:
    Today came to the Executive Mansion an assembly of cold-water men & cold-water women to make a temperance speech at the Tycoon. They filed into the East Room looking blue & thin in the keen autumnal air; Cooper, my coachman, who was about half tight, gazing at them with an air of complacent contempt and mild wonder. Three blue-skinned damsels did Love, Purity, & Fidelity in Red, White & Blue gowns. A few invalid soldiers stumped along in the dismal procession. They made a long speech at the Tycoon in which they called Intemperance the cause of our defeats. He could not see it, as the rebels drink more & worse whisky than we do. They filed off drearily to a collation of cold water & green apples, & then home to mulligrubs.

  6. A few thoughts:

    -The income tax has become a monstrosity since 1913, but it made *a lot* of sense then. The tariff (the primary source of revenue) was a massive logroll that basically benefitted 1/2+1 of the country at the expense of 1/2-1. Seriously. It was awful. So, while the income tax has become awful in the last 100 years, it was a serious attempt to fix a terrible system of public finance.

    -The direct election of senators has to be understood in the same context. Really, I cannot understate how detestable the Senate had become. Basically from the end of the Civil War, it was just an obscene collection of state party political hacks. Even if you dislike how the 17th amendment unbalanced the separation of powers — which it did — at least it was trying to correct a real problem.

    -Prohibition cannot be understood in those terms. It was a straight-up assault on Catholic immigrants. I do not think it can be justified in any other way, which makes it different.

    -That being said, the *worst* of the progressive policy innovations were the package of command-and-control measures undertaken during WWI. Censoring the mail. Putting people in jail for disagreeing with the (highly disagreeable) war. Plus, the War Industries Board was the forerunner for the National Recovery Administration, which was a genuinely totalitarian policy. The marriage of public purpose and private profit really took root with the WIB, and that is an awful thing.

    1. Agree with all of the above. The progressives had many awful and hateful ideologies and outcomes. But not all that glittered was gold in the Gilded Age, serious reform was needed, unfortunately in the end, many of the “cures” are killing us now

    2. It is just as fair to say that the common narrative on Prohibition is purely a product of institutionalized racism among Catholics.
      If this is too long, go read some histories of the Anti-Saloon Movement.
      Let’s skip past the part of the talk where we discuss whiskey. They started using a technology, imported from Europe, to produce beer. This essentially forced a lot of breweries, each with their own small territory. I think this model is pretty close to what you see in parts of Germany today.
      Then they converted to a new brewing technique. This allowed long distance shipment and longer storage of beer. This system did not permit the retail outlet, a Saloon, to stock more than one brand of beer. A manufacturer, and there were many, needed a Saloon in every market they hoped to penetrate. As it was pretty heavily expand or die, they needed to penetrate a lot of markets. Which meant Saloon operators were under tremendous pressure. Not all their neighbors cared for the results. (Imagine a crackhouse working for Big Tobacco for how some saw them.)
      Yeah, the whole northern European versus southern European drinking culture thing.
      Imagine a resource extraction or rail road town. It has been settled recently enough that nearby water sources do not have a heavy load of human infectious organisms. It is a rough place, but now women are being settled and they are determined to civilize the place, make it fit to raise children in. The town also has more Saloons than it has carrying capacity for. Note that they didn’t understand the biological underpinnings of alcoholism, and hence thought it can happen to anyone.
      Those are where prohibition started. The two components were nagging people to abstain, and legal intervention. The legal intervention simply escalated to that level. There are still dry towns today, which I doubt have heavy enough Catholic populations for it to be all about Catholics. Note that the ‘escalation’ included conversion of heavy drinkers. Jack London had been one, and then wrote John Barleycorn.
      I have an analysis that centers on Catholics if you want one. The immigrants had come from countries where the water had been so long contaminated by human waste that it wasn’t fit to drink. The toxic effects of alcohol were safer than the water. So they drank a lot. But not so much of the ‘drink lots of distilled spirits, then fight to the maiming or death’ sort. The cities they came to were not exactly nice places either.
      Go to the social opposite side of the country. The Indians on the reservations drank when they could get it. For various reasons, including the lack of as much enzymes, and of a native drinking culture calibrated for strong drink, this was hugely destructive. So, at least in some cases, the sale of alcohol to Indians was made illegal.
      The progressives made laws to ban tenements, ignoring that they might be better than what they’d left, or a rational choice in order to send money elsewhere. They could have easily also supported national prohibition by analogy with the Indians, ignoring that the Catholic tendency to drink was not nearly so pathological.
      In short, a) any analysis which sticks to ten or twenty years, and the big cities, will not be enough to show the full reasons b) the center of gravity of the opposition, at least at start, was not close enough to concentrations of Catholics for Catholics to have been the driving force c) If dislike for Catholics had been the driving force, ten years is not enough for demographic change to change things from “Let’s lynch ’em” to “Let’s tolerate ’em”. If the American people were willing to amend the constitution simply to strike at the Catholics, they could have made renouncing the Pope a condition of immigration and naturalization. d) The center of gravity of the irritation which likely drove Prohibition passes with only a side note from Moe. Few others here note it.

  7. Was fixing the House membership at 435 a progressive idea? It should make the list if so.
    In the sense of least successful, it could be considered the greatest disaster for the progressive movement, though I think Obamacare is going to give it a run for its money.

  8. Reynolds v. Sims by the Warren court.
    Nothing else the Progressive movement has accomplished has been as damaging.

  9. So….., we can all agree that whatever the greatest disaster of the progressive movement, the progressive movement itself is America’s greatest disaster?

    1. No.
      I assign a heavy level of responsibility to the Democratic Party.
      If you count the Civil War, the progressives, communist sympathizers, labor, and a number of current problems as stemming from that source… That covers a lot of American history, the earlier disasters can be downplayed as nonlethal, and as long as the Democratic Party is around, it isn’t really falsifiable.
      If I think this is a slippery slope to claiming that Gaius Julius Caesar was evil because he was like a Democrat, what do you think someone with irreconcilable differences with me in regard to American historical narratives might think?

  10. A question about scope.
    What defines progressive? There is a boatload of related material over which reasonable informed men may differ.
    For example, was Pure Food and Drug Act Progressive? Some of the propaganda that supported it came from socialists. It is almost certain that Progressives supported it, as it was the sort of thing they fetishized. I think getting rid of patent medicine was a good thing. In hindsight, I think doing it at the state level has some potential technical problems. I’ve a little family history of some treatable but often enough otherwise shockingly lethal conditions. This may lead me to over estimate the value of reliably knowing that there are strong purity and concentration controls.

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