Nowadays Prohibition seems rather quaint. It conjures flickering, grainy black-and-white images of silent movie stars, flappers, and Tommy gun-brandishing gangsters. Even Prohibition’s goal—a sober, righteous America—has a decidedly outdated smack to all but the most militant teetotaler.
But don’t mistake the Volstead Act for a mere historical curiosity. It was a prolonged, destructive violation of personal freedoms. Ironically, the law fostered chaos. As Deborah Blum explains in “The Chemist’s War,” an article that appeared last February in Slate,
But people continued to drink—and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.
(Incidentally, for a firsthand account of fun and games under Prohibition, including rum-running, tending bar in a speakeasy, and shootouts with rival bootleggers, turn to Don’t Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore. As obnoxious as Moore is, one reason I like him so much is his utter refusal to be controlled, whether by oppressive bosses, rich women, or Prohibitionists.)
Despite the law, Americans continued to pursue the forbidden pleasure. Sound familiar? Make no mistake, Prohibition exists today.
And as with yesterday’s Prohibition, it’s not just that there’s laws proscribing pot and other narcotics. They’re enforced with a vast security apparatus, paid for with billions of our tax dollars. The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free has more citizens in its prisons than any other nation, largely because of its Jihad on Narcotics. It’s not enough that statutes are on the books: they must be enforced with the zeal of true believers and people jealous of their government salaries.
Of course, the effects are never, ever what were intended. Just as Al Capone and his peers grew rich and powerful through bootlegging, we’ve seen the rise of well-armed gangs, narco-terrorists, and the Taliban, all flush with lucre from drug sales.
Then as now, lawmakers’ response to proscription’s unexpected consequences was the same: full steam ahead. Indeed, the effort must be intensified. Harass citizens? Jail offenders? No, that’s not enough. Poison the juice and its imbibers.
Blum explains that when Uncle Sam stemmed the flow of smuggled Canadian hooch, gangsters stole industrial alcohol and redistilled it to make it palatable. Industrial alcohol is essentially grain alcohol with some disagreeable additives to render it distasteful. As crooks slaked America’s thirst with redistilled firewater, the government reacted by telling producers to pump chemicals into industrial alcohol.
Gangsters met the challenge by recruiting chemists to “renature” the purloined rotgut and render it consumable. Washington, in all its infinite wisdom and compassion, in turn demanded manufacturers pump more poisons into the mix.
By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
It wasn’t long until the inevitable results came in:
In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
Readers of Notes on Democracy will recall H. L. Mencken’s words of praise for Reed. “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” the Chicago Tribune observed in 1927.
That’s right. Fanaticism. It was the driver then as it is now. Two passages from Notes on Democracy sum it up:
Our laws are invented, in the main, by frauds and fanatics, and put upon the statute books by poltroons and scoundrels.
Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel. In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.
Incidentally, if you think official and deliberate tainting of illegal substances is the stuff of nearly a century ago, think again. In the 1970s the U.S. sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with an herbicide named Paraquat. Blum relates that its
use was primarily intended to destroy crops, but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s—if some citizens ended up poisoned, well, they’d brought it upon themselves. Although Paraquat wasn’t really all that toxic, the outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.
I’m not the only one who sees a parallel between the yesterday’s and today’s crusades against intoxication and finds Notes on Democracy a valuable commentary on both. Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know, writes this week that
Prohibition is a comfortable 80 years in our past, of course, so we can read [Notes on Democracy's] passionate denunciation of it with equanimity, even smugness. A terrible idea, based on false premises and conducted ruthlessly, that left the country far worse off than it was to begin with. Yet simply substitute “War on Drugs” for “Prohibition,” and see what you think.
McHenry says that Mencken in Notes ”performed vivisection on the dogma underlying the American political system and revealed the offal within.”
As Mencken loathed Prohibition, he would’ve detested the War on Drugs, and not just for its infringement on liberty. Mencken would’ve perceived democracy’s stunting influence at work: Because addicts can’t handle wine or cocaine responsibly, the healthy are barred from enjoying them. The same force was at work when the FCC went after Howard Stern.
The censors wield their red pens, defending the weak’s delicate ears from profane words. But what of those of us who don’t take offense at Stern’s ramblings? How truly free are you when you can’t partake of simple pleasures like smoking a joint or listening to uncensored talk on the radio?
It all fairness to democracy, everyone knows other systems are often repressive. Actually, they tend to be even more restrictive. But what’s particularly galling about democracy is that by its very nature it allows and encourages small but focused groups—Prohibitionists, for example—to direct the nation. As Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy
Some of these minorities have developed a highly efficient technique of intimidation. They not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters. How formidable they may become is shown by the example of the Anti-Saloon League in the United States—a minority body in the strictest sense, however skillful its mustering of popular support, for it nowhere includes a majority of the voters among its subscribing members, and its leaders are nowhere chosen by democratic methods. And how such minorities may intimidate the whole class of place-seeking politicians has been demonstrated brilliantly and obscenely by the same corrupt and unconscionable organization. It has filled all the law-making bodies of the nation with men who have got into office by submitting cravenly to its dictation, and it has filled thousands of administrative posts, and not a few judicial posts, with vermin of the same sort.
Certainly it’s possible for a determined minority to persuade a king or dictator, but it’s got just one shot, so to speak. The potentate either approves or dismisses the petition: end of story. But in a democracy, if the minority is driven and well-funded enough, chances are it’ll succeed, no matter how insane its goal. Politicians need money and votes. If a lobby offers them, it’s got your representatives’ ears more than you can ever hope.
This is not a libertarian rant. I don’t see government as inherently evil. Living in a community means making compromises. But something is very wrong when there’s more resources invested into forbidding adults from indulging in whatever pleasures they choose than fostering science and culture. As Mencken points out elsewhere in Notes, although liberty is “the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic,” democracy “always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves.”