Vice Squad
Monday, September 29, 2003
Was Alcohol Prohibition Popular?

Tyler Cowen has more on vice, this time on alcohol Prohibition in the US. Tyler, relying on
Nathan Miller's New World Coming, claims that Prohibition was (initially) popular. I disagree to some extent with that claim, though I agree with Miller that temperence was popular. As implemented, however, national Prohibition was not all that popular, especially in northern and midwestern urban areas. A strict prohibition probably did not represent the majority viewpoint of US citizens; for instance, neither of the major political parties endorsed prohibition as part of their platforms -- even in 1920, after Prohibition was the Constitutionally-sanctified law of the land! There was never a nationwide vote on Prohibition; in Ohio, the only state that held a popular referendum on ratification of the federal prohibition, the measure failed, even though a state-level prohibition had been adopted.

Following the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, Congress needed to formulate
legislation to implement the national Prohibition. (The Amendment itself referred to
"intoxicating liquors...for beverage purposes," prohibiting imports and exports, manufacture,
sale, and transportation. The "beverage purposes" condition was necessary to exempt alcohol
intended for industrial, medicinal, or sacramental use.) One possibility was that the wartime
standard would be maintained, and hence that 2.75 percent beer would still be available.
Alternatively, both beer and wine could have been exempt, if "intoxicating liquors" were
deemed to refer only to distilled spirits. Congress chose a much stricter standard, however: the
implementing legislation, known after the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary as the
Volstead Act
, defined any product with an alcohol concentration above 0.5 percent (measured by volume) as an "intoxicating liquor." Note that, while sale was prohibited, purchase and
consumption remained legal, so that the alcohol ban during Prohibition approximates what is
referred to as "decriminalization" in today's drug policy debates. In short, it was possible
to support the 18th Amendment, but still oppose the very strict standard of the Volstead Act.

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