Alcohol

Editors Note: Prohibition, Old and New

|

In many ways, these are great days to be a tippler. Never have Americans had more varieties of beer, wine, and booze to choose from. As Jay R. Brooks noted in reason last year, "There are more than 1,400 breweries in the United States, up from only a few dozen at the start of the 1980s." The lowest-rent dive bars pour single-malt whiskey. Even the Wal-Mart in my small hometown of Oxford, Ohio, with a population of 22,000, has a large and growing wine selection.

Yet as Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi points out in this month's cover story, "Drinking is under attack these days in ways we haven't seen since the failed experiment with national alcohol prohibition in the 1920s" (see "Prohibition Returns!," page 18). His article is excerpted from his fantastic new book Nanny State, which documents in encyclopedic and appalling detail "How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children." From banning happy hours to outlawing pub crawls to ratcheting down the blood alcohol content (BAC) that defines drunk driving, elected officials are pursuing all sorts of neoprohibitionist policies that soak up limited police resources without increasing public safety.

Harsanyi tells the story of a lawyer who was arrested for drunk driving in Washington, D.C., even though her BAC was less than half the legal limit. She ended up spending $2,000 battling her ticket and a court order to attend an alcohol counseling program. She wasn't alone: In recent years, the D.C. cops have ticketed hundreds of other similarly sober drivers in a misguided attempt to prevent accidents. The good fight against drunk driving, says Harsanyi, has mutated into an all-out attack on the very concept of responsible drinking. That shift not only wastes cops' (and our) time with counterproductive roadblocks and other invasive tactics; it infantilizes even those of us who don't drink.

Jackson Kuhl's elegant essay "Eight Million Sots in the Naked City" (page 50) sheds light on how liquor prohibition played out in 1920s New York. In reviewing several recently published books on the topic, Kuhl tells a colorful tale featuring William H. Anderson, the all-too-effective head of the Anti-Saloon League; rumrunners floating off the coast of New Jersey; and crooked Coast Guard officers. Prohibition certainly kept some people from drinking, but its high social and economic costs far outstripped its meager benefits. Kuhl reminds us that Prohibition was finally repealed in the 1930s because Americans "had grown tired of paying $16 million a year for a law 70 percent didn't want."

As the neoprohibitionists push ahead with plans to mandate smaller beer cups and ignition interlock devices that would require all drivers to submit to breath tests every time they start their cars, that history is more relevant than ever.