The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A century ago, Prohibition was about expanding liberty. Then our definition of liberty changed.

Many defenders of Black, Native American and women’s political rights saw Prohibition as increasing freedom

(Rick Bowmer/AP)
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One hundred and three years ago this week, the United States ratified the 18th Amendment, adding the prohibition of liquor traffic to the Constitution. Though it was repealed in 1933, Prohibition still looms large in U.S. historical memory. American politicians and pundits still trot out Prohibition’s ghost to portray any policy they dislike as a “big government” infringement on individual liberty.

Observers regularly compare a host of restrictions — on marijuana, guns, vaping, soda or abortion, along with coronavirus vaccine mandates — to Prohibition, arguing that the era showed that limits on individual freedoms just don’t work. “Prohibition” has become an antonym for liberty.

But these invocations get Prohibition history flat-out wrong. The ways in which we think about liberty and freedom today are quite different from how Americans thought about them in the early 20th century. By looking at the history of Prohibition, we can see how collective understandings of liberty and freedom have changed over time.

Prohibition was about liberty, not repression

As I chronicle in my book “Smashing the Liquor Machine,” the temperance movement that led to Prohibition was not about government dictating what you can or can’t do or drink. Instead, it began from an understanding of liberty that seems strange to many modern Americans.

The Constitution was founded on Enlightenment principles of freedom from government limits on the individual’s political rights. “Congress shall make no law,” the First Amendment says, preventing the free expression of religion, or “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These are political rights.

For much of American history, political rights were treated as separate from economic liberties, which — going back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations — involve the economic benefits of limiting government intervention in the market.

Before Prohibition, the Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed that there is no individual right to buy or sell and that government regulation of business practices does not “impair any one’s constitutional rights of liberty or property.”

That helps explain why prohibitionists thought that preventing the sale of alcohol could increase people’s freedom without undermining their political rights. They believed that commerce in addictive liquors undermined the liberty of ordinary people. The people who sold liquor were viewed as drug dealers are today — as traffickers in an addictive substance that undermined people’s free will.

Frederick Douglass — who was a prohibitionist, an abolitionist and an advocate for African American rights and women’s rights — was fond of saying, “All great reforms go together.” Abolitionism, suffragism, temperance and self-determination were all linked to the progressive ideal that no one has an inherent right to subjugate another for their own private gain.

This was the core argument made by Native American chiefs Little Turtle and Black Hawk, abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln, suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, civil rights trailblazers Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington, Democratic stalwart William Jennings Bryan and Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

In this globe-spanning social movement, prohibitionists campaigned against the liquor traffic — the predatory capitalists and imperial governments that had a vested financial interest in promoting the addiction and misery of their subjugated drinkers. For them, it was the corrupt saloonkeepers’ pursuit of profits that generated widespread male drunkenness, domestic violence, familial poverty and crime. Activists wanted the commerce — not the booze — prohibited.

Denied traditional political rights, marginalized and disenfranchised communities — Native Americans, African Americans and suffragist women — turned to social organization, protest and even violence to oppose their subordination to the profiteering traffic. As famed saloon-smasher Carry Nation said, “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock!”

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Americans’ collective understanding of liberty changed

In the century since the 18th Amendment, Americans’ understanding of freedom has fundamentally shifted. This is in part thanks to the influence of libertarian economists after World War II.

Public writers such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman had a different understanding of freedom. For example, Friedman, in his best-selling book “Free to Choose” — written with his wife, Rose — argued that capitalist free markets were a “necessary condition” for political freedom. This new thinking, which Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan enacted into policies, held that state restrictions upon buying and selling infringed citizens’ political rights.

That altered understanding is behind conservatives’ condemnation of President Woodrow Wilson for having taken away our “freedom to drink” — even though Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act, which enforced Prohibition. It also explains why liberals blame “moralizing” conservative evangelicals, even though there was no religious political awakening in the Progressive Era. Both see Prohibition as an infringement of liberties, forgetting how its protagonists saw it as a means to protect freedom.

Some modern commentators slight the 18th Amendment as purportedly the only amendment that limited Americans’ freedoms. But the 13th Amendment explicitly took away White Americans’ “liberty” to enslave other human beings. Prohibitionists, abolitionists and suffragists were all united in the belief that every individual has the right to be free from subjugation for profit.

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The mistake has consequences for modern debate

When people complain about government restrictions today, they often start from the belief that political freedom starts with the freedom to engage in market relations. Some business owners, for example, have invoked a “constitutional right” to work that does not exist, to justify opening up their place of business despite pandemic restrictions.

Similarly, when politicians or pundits condemn public policies they don’t like as a new kind of Prohibition, they reveal that they don’t understand what Prohibition actually was. Concepts of liberty and freedom are forever changing, so that a movement that sought to increase freedom by smashing an economic machinery of addiction in the early 20th century has come to be seen as a fundamental infringement of freedom today.

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Mark Lawrence Schrad (@VodkaPolitics) is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University and author of “Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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