Last Call

by on July 12, 2010 at 7:15 am in Books, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Daniel Okrent's Last Call, a history of the rise and fall of alcohol prohibition, is a masterpiece.  Of course the writing is great but Okrent is also very good at building the history on a framework of analysis and social science. 

Here is Okrent on Prohibition and the income tax: 

By 1875 fully one-third of federal revenues came from the beer keg and the whiskey bottle, a proportion that would increase in the years ahead and that would come to be described by a temperance leader in 1913, not inaccurately, as "a bribe on the public conscience."

…it would be hard enough to fund the cost of government without the tariff and impossible without a liquor tax. Given that you wouldn't collect much revenue from a liquor tax in a nation where there was no liquor, this might have seemed like an insurmountable problem for the Prohibition movement.  Unless, that is, you could weld the drive for Prohibition to the campaign for another reform, the creation of a tax on incomes.

And here is Okrent on voting law and prohibition.  I'd always understood that prohibition was, in part, an attack by rural WASPs against urban, (often) Catholic, immigrants but I had not realized how much the drys were helped by malapportionment in the state legislatures which gave rural voters greater power than their numbers alone would have suggested.

Statewide wet majorities were rendered irrelevant by the rotten-borough legislatures.  The very same day the citizens of Missouri rejected a dry amendment to the state constitution by a margin of 47 percent dry to 53 percent wet, they elected a legislature that just two months later would ratify the Eighteenth Amendment by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin. In Ohio, the sacred cradle of the ASL, legislative districting and assiduous politicking put ratification over by a combined legislative vote of 105-42; however, when left to their own devices, Ohio voters rejected the very same measure in a referendum. 

See also Tyler's review for more.

Tyler Cowen July 12, 2010 at 7:35 am
BruceM July 12, 2010 at 8:13 am

It really is a good book. I hope people read it and make the connection between the destruction of American values and corruption of our government that resulted from alcohol prohibition is exactly the same as drug (as in all drugs, not just marijuana) – though now infinitely worse and over a trillion dollars wasted.

I have absolutely no doubt that but for the drug war, we’d have a permanent base on the moon and would have put a man on Mars by now.

Even the most ardent alcohol prohibitionist understood it would take a Constitutional amendment to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol at the federal level (they didn’t even try to ban simple possession). So why can we ban drugs – including mere possession – with a stimple statute? We can’t. At the time of alcohol prohibition the Commerce Clause was still understood as a limited, enumerated government power, not a grant of absolute power as it became in the late 30′s early 40′s due to FDR. Now we live in an age where Congress can pass any law it wants to, ban anything it wants to, and the constitution is meaningless. And we’re more than happy to give away our rights. Most of the time we actually DEMAND it. You know, for the children.

Anyway everyone should read this book. But if you convince yourself that “drugs are different” than alcohol, you’re truly a moron. Alcohol is actually one of the most intoxicating, deadly, and addictive drugs known to man. I’d rather be driving next to a truck whose driver is under the influence of methamphetamine than under the influence of alcohol (though I certainly agree that laws prohibiting the operation of vehicles while intoxicated by any intoxicant are legitimate, at least when passed at the state level… a federal drunk driving law would be unconstitutional in my opinion).

iamreddave July 12, 2010 at 8:32 am

Econ talk interviewed him a few weeks ago here
http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/06/okrent_on_prohi.html

There is a funny piece on the unintended consequences on making alcohol only sold in hotels.

dearieme July 12, 2010 at 8:55 am

When Wikipedia says “whether alcoholic drinks should be permitted or prohibited” it means, I think, whether their sale is permitted or prohibited.

Lauren Landsburg July 12, 2010 at 9:10 am

an attack by rural WASPs against urban, (often) Catholic, immigrants

I think it was closely tied to a general anti-immigrant matter, not even primarily Catholic immigrants, and also it was tied in with suffrage and the establishment of a Federal income tax.

There is a podcast interview with Daniel Okrent on this book and on the groups that coalesced to result in Prohibition on EconTalk, available at http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/06/okrent_on_prohi.html.

ipad case July 12, 2010 at 9:37 am

nice blog! thanks for sharing !

jpd July 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

including the county that makes jack daniels

Right Wing-Nut July 12, 2010 at 12:29 pm

The passage of prohibition might have been anti-immigrant, but that is not where the temperance movement started AT ALL.

First, you have the spread of distilling overlapping the camp meetings of the self-styled Second Great Awakening. People got WAY more drunk than they had been, and went to have some fun. It did not take a lot of this for preacher to start taking about the evils of drink generally, rather than drunkeness in particular.

Second, the success of the abolitionist movement left a large group of politically successful middle- and upper-class women ready for the next step in the Social Gospel. The temperance movement was a church-lady thing for decades.

Third, while in the papers suffragettes mocked the idea that public policy would be changed by giving women the vote, there was an anthem, in at least some quarters, that passing (women’s) suffrage would be the key to getting prohibition.

Economists Do It With Models July 12, 2010 at 1:07 pm

His appearance on The Daily Show was pretty good as well:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-7-2010/daniel-okrent

dearieme July 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm

@John Thacker: thank you for that.

NYT Economist July 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm

“Far more interesting in my opinion is the role of JD Rockefeller in pushing prohibition, to get rid of a potential competitor for gasoline (the early Ford Model T could also run on ethanol).”

oh come off it..everyone knows the Rockefellers had no political power, that is just a conspiracy theory.

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mbt shoes August 5, 2010 at 3:45 am

I’ve read the first 80 pages or so and found the content and analysis truly fascinating, although I think sometimes his attempts to write cleverly make the information harder to get, especially his terrible habit of explaining paragraphs of detail about, say, a character who was in the audience of another person’s big speech before giving us that character’s name, or carrying on about the consequences of some law before telling us what the law actually did, etc, etc.

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