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More Class Warfare: The Real Point of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition)

Consider the wording of the 18th Amendment passed out of Congress during WWI and ratified in 1919.

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

and then consider what is missing from it.

And the answer is “purchase, possession, or consumption”. All of which remained legal. Which meant that serving alcohol in a private residence whether at a dinner party or a cocktail party or a garden party was perfectly okay, at worst the host would have to claim some “pre-war” stock. Why even Senators and Congressmen and Presidents could (and did) openly consume intoxicating beverages in their offices and within limits at private clubs. Which would raise instant issues of hypocrisy and “goose and ganderism” except for one thing the history books gloss over. Prohibition was all about maintaining maximum productivity on the factory floor by effectively denying open access for workingmen. Because while in theory there would be no barrier to buying beer by the glass, or the beer bucket, or gin by the drink, or the bottle, it was clearly illegal to sell it in any open city or town setting. And it was not like the workingman could afford to have a bootlegger deliver booze by the case to be legally tucked away in some rich man’s cellar.

Which gets me to the point, and one that I barely have even anecdotal support for, though I believe it is out there. Prohibition largely worked for the actual purpose for which the wealthy and powerful ALLOWED it to be put in place. The 20s were the golden era for the new science of industrial engineering and production efficiency. Jobs that a generation or more before had largely been done by craftsmen were increasingly being done by factory workers operating on “the line” with every move under observation by those who would implement improvements based on Taylorism, after Frederick Winslow Taylor the father of time-motion studies. Which efficiency improvements you were not likely to get in the kind of alcohol infused workplace of the century before.

As an indication of the soundness of this theory consider that in reading about the business and social affairs of the American elite in the 1920s there is not a single hint that alcohol use was restrained or repressed, no instead this was the golden age of cocktails. Nor was there any evidence of an upsurge in piety among that group. But there was (and always will be) a class interest in boosting labor productivity and grabbing the spoils. I suggest that was what in part made the Roaring 20’s what they were. A program of prohibition that largely left the elites unaffected while clamping down on at least day time consumption by the working class.

Consider this an open thread on class warfare and labor share. Or whatever. Me, I am going to grab a stiff drink.

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