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Alcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment


When Prohibition was enacted, it was not as an experiment but as a major reform of American life and institutions. Although the temperance movement was concerned with the habitual drunkard, its main goal was total abstinence and the eradication of the liquor traffic. This totality gave the movement its moral character. The political conflict was not an argument over means for preventing alcoholism; it was a process of developing and defining the public values and life styles that would dominate in America—a conflict over the moral status of drinking and the cultural attitudes it implied.

The Prohibition amendment and its enforcing legislation, the Volstead Act (an Act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes. . . , ch. 85, 41 Stat. 305 (1919) (repealed)), were thus attempts to define appropriate moral behavior relating to consumption of a commodity and to make the state an agent of cultural persuasion. The emphasis was sociological and institutional: to outlaw the manufacture and sale of liquor and thus make it unavailable. This strategy can be contrasted with alternate psychological approaches, such as that used in the slogan of the liquor industry in the 1980s: "The fault is in the man, not in the bottle." Here institutional change is ignored. For the partisan of Prohibition the problem was not "substance abuse" but "abusive substance."

Enforcement and crime. While Prohibition achieved much legislative support, there was in much of American political and social life a large and significant population that was hostile to its legislative passage and to its intended aspiration to change drinking habits in American life (Blocker, Kyvig). It must be noted that most state legislatures, where the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, were dominated by rural constituencies since reapportioning had not occurred for decades. Enforcement was limited both in events and in punishments. If victory brought satisfaction to the Protestant, nativist, and rural segments of America, its symbolic character increased the resentment and alienation of populations who felt deeply insulted at a level of immediate, day-to-day existence. The expression "striking a blow for liberty" gave support and justification to those, especially in the large cities, who flouted the Prohibition law and kept the bootleggers in diamonds.

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act declared a major American industry to be engaged in a criminal activity. Unlike the drug legislation of later decades, they did not criminalize the consumption or purchase of alcohol, but they did place the sale, manufacture, and transportation of a major commodity out of legal bounds. As has long been true of such proscribed goods and services as prostitution, illegal abortion, gambling, and illegal drugs, a lively black market emerged (Merz; Sinclair).

The special character of the commodity made Prohibition productive of organized crime in a manner distinct from that of other black markets. Since alcoholic beverages were still available in other countries, bootlegging was a major smuggling operation, as drugs were in the 1970s and 1980s (Cashman). Transportation was therefore a major aspect of the trade in alcohol. Bootlegging was an enterprise requiring venture capital and business organization, and money, protection against hijacking, and political protection were essential to such a complex undertaking. In such a market, political corruption is a necessary part of operating and competition is at least as volatile and unwelcome as in the manufacture and sale of automobiles. Much of the sensational gang warfare during Prohibition emerged from efforts to develop and to self-police agreements in restraint of trade. A number or bootleggers in effect died defending the tenets of free enterprise.

That Prohibition was a significant element in the development of organized crime is understandable, given the businesslike character of this victimless crime. Organized crime built on the existing gangs that had controlled prostitution and other black markets before 1920, and by the time of repeal, the underworld was more organized and efficient than it had been before.

The deterrent effects of Prohibition. Was the Prohibition experiment a success? The question possesses an inherent ambiguity that almost defies scientific analysis. Legislation often has meaning on different levels and for different periods of history. As legislation symbolizing the dominance of those classes and religious groups that supported Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment acquired significance simply by winning sufficient backing for its passage, regardless of its degree of enforcement. As legislation that sought to change the life styles of Americans, Prohibition could not be gauged until it had been on the books for at least a generation. In fact, some of its impact was not at all evident until after repeal, when restrictions on hours, conditions, and consumer ages displayed some of the lasting educative effects.

Whether or not Prohibition deterred drinkers presupposes the importance of the question's answer to justifications for or against the Eighteenth Amendment. The history of temperance indicates that the passage and continuation of Prohibition was as much a symbolic statement of the public disapproval of drinking as it was an intent to effectuate a change in behavior. The legal scholar should understand that the goal of deterrence does not exhaust the context of issues over which opponents and proponents fought. Prohibition was not championed only as a means of deterring drinking; it was also put forth as a means of reforming the moral attitudes of American life. Considering Prohibition as a moral reform, rather than an experiment in social control, it is doubtful if the arguments about its deterrent effects would have swayed many of its supporters or detractors.

Repeal did not return America to the same situation vis-à-vis alcohol that existed when the Eighteenth Amendment became law and the saloons became speakeasies. Certainly, the newspapers and magazines presented a lurid picture of an America awash in bathtub gin and in easy communication with the local bootlegger; an America that paid little attention to Prohibition except as a matter of ridicule and inconvenience. But such accounts are suspect of more than the pathetic fallacy of converting the experience of a circle of urban journalists into a universal principle. They reflected the world that many journalists saw about them—the world of the metropolitan upper middle class, precisely the group least Prohibitionist in sentiment and most able to spend the money to purchase liquors and wines. A more representative analysis of the 1920s suggests a more varied picture but also underscores the sheer difficulty of answering the question about the impact of the law.

Different accounts of the Prohibition period agree on certain conclusions, cautiously and with recognition of limits in the evidence:

  1. Geographic areas where the law was least obeyed were those in which Prohibition had been least supported in elections—best characterized as metropolitan, Catholic, and Jewish. Conversely, areas where Prohibition was most strongly supported were those in which the law was most obeyed—rural, Protestant, and middle-class.
  2. The major exception to this generalization was in urban working-class areas of all religious denominations, where the falloff in drinking appears to have been considerable.
  3. Both the total consumption of alcohol and the number of deaths from cirrhosis of the liver were lower in the period after repeal than in the decade prior to Prohibition (Gusfield, 1968; Aaron and Musto).

The evidence supporting these conclusions is a variety of statistical data—total amount of grain produced and sold, arrests for drunkenness, hospital admissions for alcohol psychosis, mortality rates for cirrhosis of the liver, and tax revenues from post-repeal sales—all of which showed decreases. The use of many of these records for any quantitative estimate of alcohol consumption may be questionable, although the tax revenues offer more reliable data than most other sources. Arrest statistics for drunkenness provide especially poor data, since they depend very much on local policies and the categories used to describe a misdemeanor. Use of the data on deaths from cirrhosis of the liver depends on assumptions about the length of time between the beginning of heavy drinking and the effects of the disease—a time period no longer thought to be very uniform. Alcohol consumption after 1933 was also affected by lower incomes during the Great Depression.

Despite such skepticism about their reliability, these data, together with supplementary material based on impressions of social workers in urban areas, all point in the same direction—toward a decline of alcohol use in pro-Prohibitionist areas and among the rural and urban working class. The available evidence suggests that, contrary to popular belief, Prohibition did decrease the total consumption of alcohol drinking in the United States. The burden of proof thus appears to rest on those who would assert otherwise (Blocker, Tyvig, Aaron and Musto, Gusfield).

The apparent consensus on the decline in drinking among the working class is consistent with information about other historical periods when costs of alcoholic beverages rose, and perhaps provides the major lesson of the Prohibition period for those interested in controlling total consumption of alcohol. The impact of restrictions on sale and manufacture resulted in a rise in price and a consequent decrease in demand in a segment of the market, especially notable among the less affluent. Not only did prices increase, but as in past periods in American history, transportation costs favored whiskey over beer. The percentage rise in the price of beer (the workingman's drink) was even greater than for hard liquors. Members of the affluent, whiskeydrinking upper middle class became the major customers for alcohol.

The further consequences of Prohibition and repeal. Although the Eighteenth Amendment came under sharper and more organized attack after the mid-1920s, with the victory of Herbert Hoover over Alfred E. Smith it seemed safe from the weapons of a wet siege. Yet four years later, by which time Hoover had become cool to it and Franklin Roosevelt had repudiated it, the Prohibition amendment was ready for the trash heap of history. Whatever else may have contributed to the waning of public passions for a sober America in the midst of the Great Depression, the blocked consumption of alcohol was both a minor issue and a drain on employment opportunities and potential tax revenues. Men of power and wealth who had embraced Prohibition, such as John D. Rockefeller and S. S. Kresge, now leaped off the wagon. Unions, which were always opposed or indifferent to it, now began to petition for redress of jobs.

In the drive for national Prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League had played a dominating role, the originator of the powerful one-issue pressure group (Kyvig, Kerr). Opposition to it had been weak. Both the liquor and beer industries had not played a major role as counters to the League. With Prohibition an active and organized opposition developed, with support from wealthy donors. Two of these organizations were especially important—the Association Against Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) (Kyvig).

With the Great Depression, the vision of a dry America creating prosperity through sober and distinguished living suffered a decline in belief. The immigrant generation had come of political age just as the Protestant establishment was tilting on its pedestal. The dramatic news of criminal violence and political corruption produced by Prohibition was too great a burden for a crumbling program to bear.

The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment discredited attempts to control drinking through legal restrictions on the commercial traffic in alcoholic beverages. In addition, it diminished the political importance of the Prohibitionist constituency as shapers of public policy on alcohol after repeal. During the decade following repeal, the role of American Protestant churchmen as leaders of the anti-alcohol movement was taken over by academics, physicians, paraprofessionals, and recovered alcoholics. The stress shifted from the aim of achieving total abstinence and sobriety to the problem of chronic alcoholism—the behavior of a deviant minority of the population. As a corollary, strategies focused on treating the alcoholic rather than controlling the drinking of the general population.

Although American public discussion and action veered sharply away from legal controls, in several ways Prohibition left a legacy of acceptable legal constraints that went beyond those in existence before its passage. Per capita consumption of alcohol never returned to the high point of the early twentieth century, and the general drift away from whiskey and toward beer continued (Aaron and Musto). The comparatively high level of abstainers in the American population remained stable. In more that twelve thousand local-option elections during the two decades after repeal, there was very little change in local law (Gusfield, 1963). At the level of public opinion and personal choice, Prohibition appears to have done little to change attitudes toward drinking and abstinence.

However, the earlier lack of control over saloons was no longer acceptable. All states established Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) boards. Although often proving to be less regulatory than anticipated, they have served to prevent issuance of licenses to those with underworld connections. The ABC legislation is one of a number of legislative measures enacted and accepted in American life that perpetuate and expand the concept of beverage alcohol as an "exceptional commodity" more dangerous than most commodities and consequently requiring special legal controls. Restrictions on hours, locations of sales, and special taxes have continued or increased. Laws against public drunkenness and against drinking and driving continue to be enforced, although public-drunkenness legislation is by no means universal in Western countries.

Perhaps most significant has been the increase in the number of minimum-age drinking laws. Availability of alcohol to minors became more restricted at the same time that availability to the general population was widened (Mosher). Indicative of the persisting view that alcohol is a dangerous and exceptional commodity is the failure of many states to alter laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to persons under twenty-one. The repeal of laws lowering the age in some states has encountered little political resistance despite the decrease of the minimum age to eighteen for most legal purposes.

Although in the post-repeal period alcohol policy was dominated by an emphasis on treatment of alcoholics, by the 1970s attention was again beginning to turn toward questions of prevention through control measures such as taxation and restrictions on sale (Bruun et al.). The ambivalence of American society toward drinking remains characteristic, and still contrasts with wider acceptance of alcohol in most industrialized societies.

Although the consumption of alcohol, especially spirits, has diminished somewhat in recent decades, the system of control and permission has not altered in any significant respect since the early post-Repeal years.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAlcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment - The Temperance Movement, Prohibition, Bibliography