A vivid retelling of Prohibition revels in the unintended consequences of government intervention
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
By Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 480 pp., $35.00
Daniel Okrent has splendid timing. At a moment when the role of government regulation is a subject of public fury, Okrent—the first Public Editor of The New York Times as well as an inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball—serves up Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. It's the most persuasive, witty, and best-documented explanation yet as to why Americans decided to endure a ban on alcohol, the federal government's most intrusive regulation of all time.
Okrent can't claim to have discovered Prohibition; Michael Lerner's recent Dry Manhattan is another good entry in a well-tilled field. What elevates Last Call is, among other things, a clear explanation of the unique confluence of events that caused it. The introduction of the income tax made Prohibition fiscally feasible. Women's suffrage made it politically feasible. World War I created a surfeit of patriotism, a willingness to sacrifice, and an embrace of the expansion of federal power. By 1920 everything was in place for a bold new government intrusion into everyday life.
It's a common view that Prohibition "didn't work," and we've all seen cinematic tales of speakeasies and mob killings that lend credence to the idea that lawlessness ruled. Context is always the first casualty of history, but Last Call does a lot to help situate the impulses of the era, and yes, make them seem a little less crazy. At the same time as temperance was flowering, so were crusades for clean water and sanitation, which saved millions of lives. Alcohol, seen as a major scourge of civil society, looked ripe for a once-and-for-all ban that would put mankind on a new course. "Figuring per capita," Okrent writes, "multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you'll have an idea what much of the nineteenth century was like."
Prohibition did work largely as intended. Alcohol consumption quickly fell to 30% of its previous level; by the time of repeal it was still no more than 70% of its pre-Prohibition level. Most notably, alcohol consumption remained low for decades; the U.S. didn't return to pre-Prohibition levels of per capita consumption until 1973. Alcohol-related diseases fell. It remains the case that high alcohol taxes reduce the incidence of cirrhosis, as reported in the 2007 book Paying the Tab, by Philip J. Cook of Duke University.
We still have prohibition for 87 million Americans under the age of 21, and these restrictions work to some degree. Plenty of studies have demonstrated that lowering the drinking age raises the number of alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, not to mention assaults and other crimes. For all of the fake IDs and 22-year-old beer-distributing friends, the penalties do matter.
They mattered during Prohibition too, but policy is a lot less interesting than creative entrepreneurship. Naturally, the most entertaining chapter of Last Call concerns the cottage industries that sprang up around the ban. Dentists and physicians were licensed to grant prescription-based exceptions for "medicinal uses" of alcohol, and a typical doctor had the right to issue 100 prescriptions a month, usually for one pint every 10 days. The prescription itself went for about $3 (plus the costs of purchase), or roughly $32 in 2010 dollars. You can take that price as a rough measure of how the ban made liquor harder to get.
Okrent excels at anecdotes and discussions of hitherto neglected points. I was especially taken by his dive into how words for drinking proliferated ("scofflaw" comes from this era), the wine taster who was facing unemployment and started swallowing his samples, the transformation of Canada into a nexus of smuggling, the widespread theft of grapes, and how ships were supposed to put stoppers in their bottles as they approached the 12-mile coastline limit. Okrent paints a particularly memorable portrait of Irving Fisher, a dry reformer and one of the first celebrity economists, who was also an early influence on Milton Friedman. Fisher considered alcohol as evil as war or unstable money and argued that even moderate consumption harmed economic output. No prominent economist today even toys with Fisher's stance. Now the dominant academic talk is about decriminalizing drugs.
The lesson to be found amid the scofflaws and scoundrels and anecdotes is that, even if they were ultimately on the wrong side of history, temperance forces were far more sensible than we have come to believe. Today so many drugs and addictive substances are illegal or require medical supervision, yet alcohol is consumed relatively freely. Why the difference? Commentators are passionately for or against drug legalization, but after reading and pondering Last Call I came away with a new understanding. Every society has some legal and socially acceptable intoxicants. Cocaine prohibition continues where alcohol prohibition ended, in part because cocaine users are easily caricatured and demonized as either spoiled yuppies or violent gang members. It's also easier to get a little bit drunk than a little bit high on crack. So alcohol, despite its well-documented destructiveness, survives as the focal, available, and acceptable intoxicant.
If you want to legalize or decriminalize other drugs, you need to think through more than the liberty-based arguments for individual choice and the economic arguments against black markets. You also need to consider whether drug dealers and users will ever achieve enough social respectability to support a change in regime. Okrent's book doesn't deal much in theory, but it does show how enduring consumption norms are. In doing so he serves up what is likely to be one of this year's best books on American history.
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