Prohibition Free for 75 Years

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, I wrote a letter to the Rocky Mountain News that the paper published today. Here I extend my comments.

I summarize in the letter, “Then, like today, Republicans promoted statist controls of both economy and social life. Democrats ramped up the economic controls but promised to liberate people in their personal choices.”

The paper edited out the next line: “Prohibitionist Republicans alienated many freedom-minded voters — including arch-capitalist Ayn Rand — and Roosevelt trounced Hoover in the presidential contest.”

I called the Ayn Rand Institute to verify the claim about Rand. Jeff Britting, archivist for the organization, said that Rand voted for FDR in his first presidential election because of his opposition to prohibition. However, Britting noted, Rand later became more political and became a vocal critic of FDR and the New Deal. The information is contained in unpublished audio recordings from the 1960s. Apparently Rand expressed concern about the expansion of state power as well as the problem of organized crime.

While poking around on the internet, I also found the claim that Isabel Paterson voted for FDR the first time around. Biographer Stephen Cox noted that this information is contained in Paterson’s letter to Lillian Fischer, dated September 8, 1932. Cox writes:

She had voted for Roosevelt. She didn’t like him, but at least he was opposed to prohibition. She made no comment on the fact that his platform favored certain economic policies that she approved, such as a balanced budget and a deep cut in federal spending. Once the New Deal got underway, she reminded people about his unkept campaign pledges; during the election, however, she seems to have taken them no more seriously than he did. [The Woman and the Dynamo, page 165, endnotes omitted.]

The parallels between then and now are striking. Bush, like Hoover, dramatically expanded the power of the federal government. Bush, like Hoover, alienated many voters with his commitment to social controls.

Note that I am not arguing that FDR won because of Prohibition; I am arguing that Prohibition was an important contributing factor. Likewise, Republicans did not get trounced during this last election solely because of their social conservatism and faith-based politics. As I have stated, I think McCain hammed the final nail in his own electoral coffin when he rushed to the District of Columbia to push through Bush’s bailout. This proved to the American people, most of whom opposed the bailout, that, like Hoover, modern Republicans are enemies of economic liberty.

I do not think that Obama will be as destructive as FDR was. (Nor do I think people like Paterson or Rand could have predicted just how bad FDR would turn out to be.) Those decades of the 20th Century were dominated by the rise of Communism. My dad is currently reading The Haunted Wood, and he reports that FDR’s government contained Soviet-friendly officials. Those were the ideas of the era. Today, the collapse of Communism continues to inform people’s basic worldviews, and free markets continue to attract many. But this is an aside. Despite the many differences between the times, Bush is in many important respects Obama’s Hoover.

Also edited out of the letter was this bit about Hoover:

Hoover complained about the violent police raids, crime, disrespect for the law, and international smuggling associated with Prohibition, but he praised its “high purpose” and hoped “it was the final solution of the evils of the liquor traffic.” He wanted to return control to the states while achieving “elimination of the evils of this traffic.”

These claims come from two sources. The first quotes some of Hoover’s comments on Prohibition. The second is Hoover’s acceptance of nomination speech on August 11, 1932. What struck me about this speech is Hoover’s wishy-washiness. He seems to want to maintain a general policy of Prohibition while restoring power over the matter to the states.

I was also struck by FDR’s condemnation of “the saloon” even as he forcefully demanded the repeal of the 18th Amendment:

And talking about setting a definite example, I congratulate this convention for having had the courage fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks about the 18th Amendment. This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal.

Two years ago the platform on which I ran for Governor the second time contained substantially the same provision. The overwhelming sentiment of the people of my State, as shown by the vote of that year, extends, I know, to the people of many of the other States. I say to you now that from this date on the 18th Amendment is doomed. When that happens, we as Democrats must and will, rightly and morally, enable the States to protect themselves against the importation of intoxicating liquor where such importation may violate their State laws. We must rightly and morally prevent the return of the saloon.

But, if FDR hated “saloons,” he had no aversion to alcohol. He said of the Volstead Act on March 13, 1933:

To the Congress:
I recommend to the Congress the passage of legislation for the immediate modification of the Volstead Act, in order to legalize the manufacture and sale of beer and other beverages of such alcoholic content as is permissible under the Constitution; and to provide through such manufacture and sale, by substantial taxes, a proper and much-needed revenue for the Government. I deem action at this time to be of the highest importance.

I was unable to nail down the details about the quote, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Wikipedia links the quote to the Volstead amendment. Yet others link the quote to the 21st Amendment.

I got the information about Colorado’s wine industry from a web page hosted by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. I found it ironic that, while the state government once destroyed the wine industry, now it actively promotes it through dedicated tax funds.

Yet the evening wears on, and I have not yet made my own toast to the repeal of Prohibition.