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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading List: The Alcoholic Republic

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.
This book was recommended to me by Prof. Paul Rahe after I had commented during a discussion on Ricochet about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance, spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law (the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the forbidden fruit.

I read every book my readers recommend, albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45% alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita” includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this aggregate.

As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West, maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however, made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food value without need for refrigeration.

Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it, “fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was in-and-out, centuries before the burger. But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.

But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead, it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the second great awakening. While this movement certainly did result in some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol, much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those who enabled it.

This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch “social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.

As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that prohibition did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after repeal, a return to the status quo ante.

If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition. It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.

Posted at 23:08 Permalink