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Tuesday Tributes
Why Prohibition Was Good For America

By Charles Olken

Even the Ken Burns documentary now airing, with its PBS—nose in the air attitude, cannot hide the fact that Prohibition was one of the best things ever to happen to this country.

There, I have said it. I wish there were a different spin, a kinder view, but it is a fact undisputed by any responsible observer, that alcohol was too often the opiate of the masses and that the economic and emotional hardships caused by that state of affairs needed addressing.

The funny thing is that other issues in our society also needed addressing and Prohibition worked in very good ways for things like Women’s Suffrage and the rooting out of police corruption. These are good things, as is the way in which the control of alcohol distribution was taken from the hands of the producers and put through the three-tier system. That move alone meant that alcoholic excess was somewhat hindered.

What has surprised me in the Burns series that has one episode left to run—although it is bound to be rerun as have his other documentaries—is that the amount of alcohol consumed during Prohibition went up rather than going down. That might seem like a contradiction in terms and repudiation of my earlier philosophical observations, but, it turns out that the shift in drinking habits from cheap bear in tied house saloons to fancier liquors in speakeasies resulted in a shift in who got drunk. Was it better that the “swells” became the big drinkers and that the Saturday evening beer swillers were at least a little slowed down? Pardon my politically incorrect observation, but I am comfortable with that exchange.

I endorse the argument that society should govern the choices of people as little as is possible, and clearly, the unintended consequence noted above was not at all what the “dries” were trying to accomplish. But, slowing down excess is a good thing. It is good thing today that we have drunk driving laws. We can debate levels and enforcement mechanisms but reducing the carnage done by inebriated drivers is a good thing.

The responsible consumption of alcohol does no harm. Laws which encourage that behavior are okay with me. Prohibition may have been the wrong cure for the problem, and giving states control over the sale of alcohol in ways that have mostly benefited the middlemen in the three-tier system has hardly been an ideal reponse. But both Prohibition and the three-tier system have had their benefits. If Prohibition ultimately proved to be unacceptable because of its wrongness, and if state control of alcohol to the detriment of responsible consumers needs to be changed because of the wrongness that it does, we do need to remember that not all that came down in Prohibition was bad and not everything done in the name of Repeal was good.

I am not trying to be a contrarian with these comments so much as I am suggesting that Prohibition was a response to a problem. Its arrival did some good for some people, and we need to keep that in mind as we move forward. There are good reasons for bad laws. What we need to do is to make better laws if we are going to make laws. And that dictum applies to alcohol in the same way it applies to everything else.


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No Subject
by Patrick
Posted on:10/4/2011 12:40:41 PM

Prohibition was one of the best things ever to happen to this country

Prohibition may have been the wrong cure for the problem

Which is it, Charlie?

by Colorado Wine Press
Posted on:10/4/2011 12:45:23 PM
Prohibition didn't root out police corrupation, it was the source of previously unheard of amounts of police corruption and organized crime!
Pros and Cons
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/4/2011 6:44:28 PM

Patrick--both. We would have been better off is we had eliminated tied houses, stopped saloons from serving inebriated patrons (as bars pretty much must do today), did not let saloons act as quasi-banks. Prohibition threw the baby out with the bath water and did not work, but it did do some good. My reason for writing the article I did with the slant I took was to remind myself and all the rest of us in the alc. biz that we have a responsiblity to work for thoughtful control of the product while at the same time fighting like crazy against the new Prohibitionists who do things like branding any blood alc level above 0.8 as "binge drinking".

As for curroption, I do not argue that corruption went down during Prohibition. It went up, but part of the backlash against the evils of Prohibition were attem;ts in some cities to clean up police forces. We came out of Prohibition in the midst of the Depression, itself a force that encourage people to do whatever they could to get by.

The point is not that Prohibition was net/net good. I have been in this biz for four decades. I certainly enjoy my wine, my whiskey and other interesting potions. But, I also dislike the idea that we in the industry view all this in black and white terms. It was the alc industry whose bad practices led to Prohbition that must take some of the blame and must ever be aware of its responsibilities as well as its vulnerablities.

No Subject
by gdfo
Posted on:10/5/2011 7:54:11 AM

It happened. We have a vantage point in hindsight.

Like other situations in history the answer to the problem was overdone. 

Have you gone crazy?
by Bill McIver
Posted on:10/6/2011 4:20:58 AM
Wiping out America's wine industry that had come into its own as a beverage for the American dinner table was destroyedand making wine just another form of booze and forging a generation of outlawry, thugs and legalize criminals who still control the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages was a good thing?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/6/2011 6:27:07 AM

Hello, Bill--

MIght I ask that you read the article again and the comments. Prohibition was the wrong solution to a problem that needed addressing. It was the classic response by the "We know all the answers" crowd but it did address a problem.

Was it good for everyone? No. Was it good on balance? Maybe/maybe not. Were there important and good things that happened as the result of Prohbition? Yes there were--and that is the point.

suck my balls
by suck my balls
Posted on:11/26/2012 5:55:58 PM

suck my balls

by hi
Posted on:3/13/2015 10:41:50 AM

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Posted on:3/13/2015 10:45:13 AM

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by gracie hill
Posted on:4/6/2015 8:41:37 PM

hello i just wanted to say this is a really good article and that i got a lot from it so thank you. :)


by Roger Meier
Posted on:6/15/2016 2:06:29 PM

The people that want drugs to be leagalized are using the same logic as the people during proabition.  Alcohol is good for no one.  It is a poison.

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