In 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting, for almost all purposes, the production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. There are two erroneous things everybody has learned from Prohibition, says Anthony Esolen: “First, it is wrong to try to legislate morality. Second, you cannot do it, for Prohibition failed.”
The real lessons of Prohibition, though, go unheeded:
That amendment inserted into the Constitution a law that neither protected fundamental rights nor adjusted the mechanics of governance. It was a radical break from tradition. It is crucial to understand this. It took a juridical break from tradition to obliterate the customs, the lived traditions, of the American people and their forebears.
Granted, Prohibition addressed problems that certainly needed solving. Prohibition was sold, in large part, as a measure to protect women and children from alcoholic husbands and fathers. An evil-tempered workingman, coming home drunk after a day underground with a pickax or on the railroad with a sledgehammer, might beat his wife and children, or he might already have drunk half his money away.
But the avenue chosen was too problematic. It was an attempt to call on the national government, that lumbering giant, as Big Daddy to keep little daddy in his place. It was a national “answer” for a local problem, even a domestic problem, as if one were to ask the United Nations to impose a curfew on one’s teenager. That was a first in American history. Indeed, the people who campaigned for Prohibition knew it was so, else they would not have taken the extraordinary trouble to pass a constitutional amendment. Prohibition was repealed, but the precedent was not. Now we expect the national government to look to local problems, even domestic problems. No one blinks when that same government decides what goes on in your child’s classroom and what kind of Christmas display you can have in your borough building. Prohibition set the stage for national scrutiny of the folkways of everyday life.