Prohibition’s centennial: Why drinking won
A century after Prohibition began, alcohol is clearly “America’s favorite poison,” said Olga Khazan in TheAtlantic.com. Pushed by Protestant reformers, mainly women, the 18th Amendment took effect on Jan. 17, 1920, outlawing the production and sale of booze. The ban was a reaction against rampant alcoholism, which had plagued the U.S. since the 19th century, and ended with Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Today, drinking still causes widespread misery: Alcohol-related deaths have doubled over the past two decades, and research has shown that even moderate consumption of wine, beer, and spirits—as little as a glass a day—can “wreak havoc on the cells,” raising the risk of liver disease, heart failure, dementia, and cancer. But in 2020, virtually no one rails against the “demon drink.” Indeed, polite society happily indulges in bottomless brunches and office happy hours, and problem drinking is viewed as a personal failure, not as proof that alcohol is dangerously addictive. “Why,” the average drinker thinks, “ruin everyone else’s fun?”
Americans should “raise a toast” to Prohibition’s demise, said Patrick Riccards in The Hill. Rather than improving public health, the temperance movement provided a cautionary tale against regulating morality. Legal saloons merely gave way to illegal speakeasys, as about a million legitimate workers were replaced by “an underground economy” of bootleggers and mob bosses like Chicago’s Al Capone. As a result, “Americans found themselves entrenched in the criminal world just because they wanted to drink a beer.” Prohibition, the liberal “great experiment,” shows what happens when crusaders use the state to “remake” society, said Richard Major in WashingtonExaminer.com. We see that same “progressive Puritanism” today in efforts to regulate “how we hire, whether we smoke, and what we eat.” All are attacks on liberty.
Prohibition is grossly misunderstood, said Mark Lawrence Schrad in NYTimes.com. Its advocates were not “Bible-thumping, rural evangelicals,” but rather leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony. Back then, saloonkeepers “were seen as parasites,” making “outlandish profits” as poor men blew their paychecks on after-work binges. Alcohol was the early 20th century’s opioid crisis, and the “vast majority” of Americans supported Prohibition. The fact that it ultimately failed “doesn’t mean its proponents were crackpots.” ■