The 100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the Amendment That Led to Prohibition Is a Reminder of the Lasting Damage Bad Policy Can Do

The outlaw of the production and sale of alcohol was a racist policy that failed on its own terms.


Library of Congress

One hundred years ago today, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th amendment, which set Prohibition in motion a year later. Prohibition is widely, and rightly, remembered as one of the 20th century's greatest policy mistakes, and it contains more than a few lessons that remain relevant today.

The decision by the states and the federal government to outlaw the manufacture, sale, and transportation of most alcohol in the United States was born of racism, nativism, government paternalism, and moralizing religiosity.

As Harvard's Lisa McGirr writes in today's New York Times, Prohibition was fueled by white protestant disdain for urban immigrants and the saloons they frequented. Prohibition was backed by the Ku Klux Klan, and was promoted by former members of the Anti-Saloon League. The influential Women's Christian Temperance Union called for the deportation of anyone who violated alcohol law but wasn't a citizen. German beer makers were tarred as un-American. It was a moral failure, driven as much by spite towards the nation's increasing foreign-born population as by concern about excessive drinking.

But Prohibition also failed on its own terms. Instead of putting a stop to problem drinking, it criminalized it, making it more dangerous in the process. Prohibition created a violent black market for alcohol that helped empower and enrich violent criminals in the process. Problem drinkers continued to imbibe. Many drinkers switched from relatively low-proof beer to much higher proof alcohol, which was easier to transport.

Under Prohibition, drinking was still common—see, for example, this 1932 map of Harlem speakeasies, which suggests that boozy nightlife flourished—but black-market liquor was more expensive, lower quality, and sometimes dangerous to drink, since producers had to keep their work hidden from the view of authorities. That necessity bred vast corruption, as bootleggers paid off government officials, effectively making police and politicians, many of whom continued to drink themselves, partners in their illegal operations. This, in turn, bred distrust in the government, which was plainly hypocritical in its operations.

Yet the effect of Prohibition was not to turn Americans away from the government. As McGirr writes, Prohibition "cracked the door open toward other forms of regulation. Not only did Prohibition forge the edifice of the federal penal state, but growing numbers of Americans looked to the federal government for solutions to social and economic problems." Even, and perhaps especially, in failure, it created demand for further intervention.

For today's policymakers and policy influencers, Prohibition remains a cautionary tale about government overreach: It was a dysfunctional and badly run system predicated on ugly, populist notions and deluded ideas about the power of government to solve social problems. Not only did it fail to accomplish its goals, it created a host of unintended consequences that were worse than the problems it was supposed to solve.

The straightforward lessons of Prohibition are obviously applicable to any number of public policy issues making headlines today, from the opioid crisis to marijuana legalization to immigration, and our elected leaders would be wise to heed them.

But there is another lesson from Prohibition that is often overlooked—not from its beginning, but from its end, more than a decade later, with the 21st amendment, which repealed the 18th. That lesson is that, with enough time, even the worst policy mistakes can be corrected. Progress may be halting and frustrating, but America can learn from its mistakes and change its course. Yes, the effects of Prohibition lingered on for decades, in the damage it did to cocktail culture, in the institution of restrictive state liquor laws, and in the overall growth of the state. But there is little danger that full-on Prohibition will return, and slowly but surely the similarly restrictive policies that have governed marijuana are being undone.

So yes, the anniversary of Prohibition is a warning of all the ways that government policies can go wrong, and the lasting damage the worst of those policies can do. But its eventual reversal and tainted legacy also offer reasons for hope. Prohibition's end is a reminder that the very worst policies, no matter their scale, aren't locked in place, and we aren't stuck with them forever.

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  1. Not only did Prohibition forge the edifice of the federal penal state, but growing numbers of Americans looked to the federal government for solutions to social and economic problems.

    Government: The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.

  2. I think one of the most interesting aspects of prohibition is that back then they used to actually make amendments to the Constitution, which means they still respected it a little bit.

    1. Yeah, nothing says respect for the constitution like the 1917 Espionage Act or the 1918 Sedition Act.

      1. The Alien and Sedition Act has the sadz

      2. I said a little, yeesh.

        1. Yes, you did. Still, I couldn’t help myself.

    2. +10000 Joe M

  3. “The outlaw of the production and sale of alcohol was a racist policy that failed on its own terms.”

    This is a re-invention of history in order to appear woke. If anything, prohibition was anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Catholic (the proto “bake the cake”). Good made-up history, though.

    1. Yeah, if being Anti-German is now racist, the term has lost all meaning.

      1. I thought it was in response to those dirty rats from Ireland who ate their own children because they were too drunk to farm potatoes? Oh and I can say all that cause I’m Irish, don’t you dare take our words for each other.

        1. So . . . I can’t use the ‘I-word’?

      2. Germans, Irish, Italians were referred to as “races” in the language of the day. The word “racist” may not have been in common use, but yeah, being anti-German was then (not now) being against people of a certain “race”.

        1. Sure, but anti-German sentiment is not what led the Klan to support prohibition

          1. Anti-Catholicism was. You know us Catlicks likes us some wine at Mass and beer at bingo…

            1. Kikes, Koons, and Katholics = KKK.

      3. Oh, the term lost all meaning a while ago

    2. Don’t forget that like most oppressive ideas in history, this one was started by organized religion.

      1. That’s not entirely true. It depends on what you define as “organized religion”. Progressivism, at the time, was indeed secular, but fully endorsed prohibition as it suited its views on certain classes of immigrants.

        1. Also, feminists were huge proponents of prohibition, which Suderman doesn’t mention, because he would be deducted ten woke points if he did.

          Prohibition was primarily driven by anti-immigrant sentiments, but specifically anti-Catholic immigrant sentiment.

          1. You are defeating your own arguments. If the sentiment was primarily anti-Catholic, it was religious in nature. Whenever a particular religion is singled out, it is usually by another religion.

            1. “Whenever a particular religion is singled out, it is usually by another religion.”

              Then I suppose Donald Trump and Democrats on the Senate judiciary committee are the most religious people in America.

        2. The Temperance movement was most definitely not secular in origin.

          1. “The Temperance movement was most definitely not secular in origin.”

            Then we have to believe that feminism and progressivism were both products of religion.

            At the very least, proponents of temperance were no more religiously motivated than opponents of temperance.

            1. I don’t know about feminism, but progressivism is directly descended from puritanism

            2. “in origin” he said. The progs and womyn were late arrivals, if enthusiastic.

        3. Progressivism is a religion in all but official labeling. And it sure ain’t progressive.

      2. Well, there’s communism as a counter-point.

        1. Communism is also religious in origin. The first communists were religious communes. Rothbard had a good lecture on this. Where do you think Marx got his ideas?

    3. Distinction without a difference. At the time, European ethnicities were also referred to as “races”. Even thirty years later, people talked about the “German race”. While Germans, Irish and Italians were not discriminated against in exactly the same way that that blacks were, there is no doubt that they were discriminated against.

      And while the discrimination against Italians and Irish was compounded by anti-Catholic bias, the Germans were (quite literally) the original Protestants.

      1. “And while the discrimination against Italians and Irish was compounded by anti-Catholic bias, the Germans were (quite literally) the original Protestants.”

        They quite literally weren’t. There were two waves of German immigration in the US. The first were refugees from the Revolutions of 1848, who tended to be protestants from the northern part of Germany (at that time not known as ‘Germany’). These immigrants tended to move to rural areas and focused on agriculture. Whereas, the second wave of immigrants was in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and these tended to be Catholics from southern Germany. They concentrated in cities and were drawn to manufacturing.

        And the problem with Suderman’s cracker jack history and his invocation of “muh…racism” is that actual racism was the impetus for some drug laws (specifically cocaine and marijuana), while prohibition was almost exclusively about anti-Catholic animus.

    4. I thought it was the first indication of what a bad idea it is to let women vote?

  4. “the effects of Prohibition lingered on for decades” And lingers on still: the American cider industry was destroyed, and the trees that it relied on were largely also destroyed.


  5. That some KKK members supported prohibition means that the amendment was racist?

    1. The KKK supported prohibition because they were anti-Catholic. Sauderman knows that being against religious groups is en vogue among the woke set nowadays (with one exception) and so he decided to just scream “racism” like a good moron

      1. Would he be seen socializing with Steve King?

        1. Steve King said he didn’t understand why “white supremacy” was a bad word. Come off it. How can you justify such a moronic statement?

          1. You still believe what the NYT says?

            What I believe, based on King’s account and the good sense not to trust the NYT, is that King asked why should western civilization be considered offensive as are white nationalism and white supremacy.

            There is nothing wrong with defending white people or asseverating that western civilization was the product of white people, not the sub-Saharan set.

          2. How do you justify such a moronic belief?

            From Dan Flynn:

            King contends that the Old Grey Lady deleted the first part of the sentence and incorrectly inserted a comma between “white supremacist” and “Western civilization?instead of a period, dash, or some other grammatical barrier that would have made it clear that “Western civilization” served as the antecedent to “that.” In other words, King wondered how Western civilization suddenly became offensive, not how white supremacy suddenly became offensive, something wondered by exactly no one and said by even fewer.

            “In a 56 minute interview, we discussed the changing use of language in political discourse,” King explained in a release earlier this week. “We discussed the worn out label ‘racist’ and my observation that other slanderous labels have been increasingly assigned to Conservatives by the Left, who injected into our current political dialog such terms as Nazi, Fascist, ‘White Nationalist, White Supremacist,? Western Civilization, how did THAT language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’?just to watch Western Civilization become a derogatory term in political discourse today. Clearly, I was only referencing Western Civilization classes. No one ever sat in a class listening to the merits of white nationalism and white supremacy.”

            1. His mistake wasn’t what he said. His mistake was saying it to the media. He almost deserves his defenestration for being dumb enough to trust them.

            2. The explanation for that Confederate flag on Rep. King’s desk should be fascinating. Those proposing to fashion a defense of Rep. King on that one should consider this question: Was Iowa part of the Confederacy?

              1. Let’s assume all the worst about King and the flag on his desk (I take your word its there)… how does that definitively undermine the account above where he was mischaracterized? Is it not possible that even of he is a racist (I dont know anything about him so I dont know) he could still be correct in pointing out that Western Civ has come under attack as being a racist ideology? Criminals can also be victims. Bad people do good things at times and vice versa.

              2. Only morons think the Confederacy was all about racism.

  6. *sobs in Pennsylvanian

    When the govt loves tax monies and both parties can collude against the people, the PLCB reigns for 86 years.

  7. The decision by the states and the federal government to outlaw the manufacture, sale, and transportation of most alcohol in the United States was born of racism, nativism, government paternalism, and moralizing religiosity.

    Uh, ya left out feminism.

    And, of course, progressivism. Despite alluding to it w/o naming it.

    1. Suderman’s history is astoundingly bad. And that’s what happens when you use a NYT article as the sole basis for your argument.

      1. You are making my point.

  8. Prohibition happened because women got tired of men going to the bars and getting drunk and brainwashed their children into supporting prohibition as well, in addition to the men scared of their wives.

    1. Women cannot have men having a good time with others at bars, visiting prostitutes, and generally not doing as the bitches say.

  9. And yet various other prohibitions continue to linger on.
    One can only hope that all of these prohibitions go away just as alcohol prohibition did.

  10. Alcohol prohibition was a huge success to such wonderful, kind and forgiving people like Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Trafficante, Bugsy Siegel, and just look at the success that drug prohibition has done for a lot of Latin American and American businessmen.
    Prohibition works.
    Just ask any gangster.

  11. “Yet the effect of Prohibition was not to turn Americans away from the government.”

    They hated revenuers, but loved FDR when he announced the repeal. As someone else noted, a government caused crisis with a government caused solution. People are like the abused wife who can’t leave the abusive husband, but instead enables the jerk.

  12. Every bad policy doesn’t also have to be portrayed as racist to be bad. Prohibition was enforced against people of all races.

    1. On the Volokh whenever gun regulations come up it is like being at a Black Lives Matter rally. All the conservative commenters sound like Malcom X! They think in 1985 in Houston and Dallas white people were walking around with handguns while black people were being denied the ability to defend themselves with guns.

  13. Ratification was a terrible idea.

    Do you know that beer is a gateway drug to whiskey and other strong addictive alcohols ?

    Do you know that the modern beer like Samuel Adams is much stronger your dad’s beer like Narragansett?

    Millions of people are not only addicted to alcohol but lives ruined by drunks.

    Just say no to the alcohol.

    1. Lol. That said my current diet allows the consumption of multiple beers a night and I have rediscovered Natural Light as the perfect 3rd beer of the night. I like craft beer but I am not going to drink more than two beers with ABV over 6% a night.

  14. One thing I learned today is that the Trump family made their first fortune through prostitution and booze (the paterfamilias was German). Trump comes from whore money and we need to legalize prostitution and make it barely socially acceptable like it was around 1900.

  15. Interestingly, yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood. The flood was caused when a multi-million gallon molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company burst open, spilling millions of tons of molasses across the streets of Boston. People and animals became trapped resulting in over 100 injured and 21 people dead in addition to several dead horses. I wonder what the odds of that much molasses, bound for fermentation and probably distillation into rum, spilling the day before Prohibition was ratified. Coincidence?

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  17. Prohibition didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now…. Just look at what’s happening with fentanyl and all the deaths from street drugs. Everyone told the government what would happen with opioids…

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