The debate over Prohibition never seems to end.
In a recent local battle in Indianapolis, Walgreens sought permission to sell alcoholic beverages in its stores, but residents in some neighborhoods objected. Opponents aren't asking for a return to Prohibition, but they want to talk about the wisdom of expanding outlets for a product that contributes to family breakdown, drunken driving, and serious health problems.
The opponents are far from Prohibitionists, who advocated for and won a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages from 1919 to 1933. But the issues are similar---abuse of alcoholic beverages and the kind of social problems that fueled a 100-year temperance movement that led to Prohibition.
The Indianapolis controversy gets replayed in other cities all the time. Hardly anyone wants to live near a liquor store, or a gambling casino. Their products, like cigarettes, can be harmful to physical and social health.
Historians have renewed the Prohibition debate from other angles.
From a sympathetic perspective, Jason Lantzer has written about Edward Shumaker, the politically powerful Indiana leader of the Anti-Saloon League, in his book Prohibition Is Here to Stay.
Lantzer accepts that Shumaker and other temperance leaders were motivated by a sincere love of neighbor. They had seen families ripped apart by alcohol. Their passion for temperance grew out of a hunger for justice, the same type of hunger that drove those at the heart of the anti-slavery movement and advocates for women's suffrage.
Taking a wider look at the history of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent offers great detail in his new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. He shows how a dedicated minority can achieve a majority influence. The temperance movement worked pretty well with county option laws, letting local citizens decide whether to allow liquor sales. The "wets" could move to wet places, and the "drys" could stay dry, usually in more rural areas. The county option, still at work in a few places, provides both sides an exercise in democracy, like a New England town meeting. Anyone really dying for a drink could drive to a wet county.
Yet the temperance movement wanted something more---an ambitious national Prohibition through constitutional amendment. They got it through brilliant political organizing. The political success was driven by the Anti-Saloon League more than the better known Women's Christian Temperance Union or the Prohibition Party. The league's chief organizer, Wayne Wheeler, gave the group a laser-like focus on a single issue, whereas other groups like the Prohibition Party got distracted with topics such as ownership of utilities. The league also made the most of overrepresentation of rural areas in state legislatures and formed alliances with advocates of women voting or the federal income tax to replace lost liquor tax revenue.
With the adoption of Prohibition in the Constitution in 1919, advocates hoped that Utopia had arrived. Crime did go down after enactment and liquor consumption dropped. Yet the big cities never really consented to the arrangement. Okrent's book details the crime and corruption that grew through illegal liquor traffic.
Okrent's weakness, in contrast to Lantzer, is the subtle way he looks down on the advocates of Prohibition. The people who brought Prohibition also were behind the movement for women to vote, as well as the direct election of U.S. senators. Yet Okrent never explores much of the long and tragic alcohol abuse history that drove the temperance advocates to the Prohibition position.
Okrent's book and Lantzer's regional story show that the debate over alcohol abuse didn't end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. It stays alive through the work of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Alcoholics Anonymous.
The question today is not one of an outright ban but of how best to regulate products that can do great harm to the both individuals and society.