December 5th is here at last — Repeal Day, the 74th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment and the end of the United States’ failed experiment with alcohol Prohibition.
Repeal Day has languished in obscurity since its celebrated first occurrence, but a movement is afoot among the nation’s bartenders and liquor promoters to turn it into a grand annual celebration. As Oregon bartender and the day’s prime advocate Jeffrey Morgenthaler has noted, it makes an ideal drinking holiday. It falls conveniently between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are no costumes to buy, and you don’t have to be Irish. It’s open to everyone who enjoys freedom and good drink and celebrating is as simple as heading to a bar or popping open a beer at home.
There’s yet another reason to celebrate Repeal Day: though we are now mostly free to imbibe, the spirit of the Anti-Saloon League lives on in the continued growth of the nanny state. Just as the teetotalers of the previous century held governments in thrall, so today do various do-gooders persuade city councils and state legislators to interfere with our chosen indulgences. In cities and states across the country, we can longer enjoy tobacco with our drinks. Outdoor bans are increasingly common and some city councils extend their noses even into our own apartments and balconies. Cigars, in the few places where they can still be savored, had better not be Cuban. New York has famously forbidden foods cooked with trans-fats; Chicago, foie gras. Cheese lovers lament the restrictions on young raw milk cheeses, readily available in Europe but blocked domestically by risk-averse regulators who wouldn’t know Camembert from Kraft.
Where products aren’t explicitly banned, “sin taxes” abound to punish the pleasure-seeking. Cigarettes remain the favorite target. Though already taxed beyond reasonable calculations of the externalities they impose, few can resist the double lure of punishing smokers and raising revenue for the state. Congress remains poised to strike once again with proposals to expand SCHIP, aiming to force smokers alone to bear the costs of children’s health coverage. Taxes on unhealthy foods have so far failed to achieve such popularity, but the “Twinkie tax” remains a favorite of the public health lobby.
Then there’s the legislative legacy of Prohibition itself. Though the 21st Amendment ended the national ban on alcohol consumption, the regulatory power it left to states remains an impediment to truly free markets. The ubiquitous three-tier system of wholesalers, distributors, and retailers has spawned a bevy of laws that benefit middlemen at the expense of consumers. Outdated constraints on direct sales increase the costs of alcohol, while bans on direct shipping often make it impossible to order boutique spirits, wines, and beers. Even as the internet has granted consumers access to the abundant long tail of countless goods, drink lovers remain trapped in a 1930s model of distribution.
Finally, we must acknowledge our contemporary struggle with prohibition: the cruel and costly War on Drugs. As Prohibition did in the 1920s, the Drug War has led to a boom in organized crime, corruption of the police, and violations of our civil liberties. Federalism has been trampled in the fight against medical marijuana, doctors face prosecution for prescribing painkillers to their patients, and ordinary adults are forced to show their ID just to buy cold medicine. Most distressingly, the United States now claims the highest prison population rate in the world, with more than 300,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses.
The ratification process of the 21st Amendment holds a notable lesson for today. All other amendments have been ratified by state legislatures. Fearing that rural lawmakers would be reluctant to bear the ire of the temperance movement, Congress sent this one directly to the people to ratify in specially assembled state conventions. Given the similarly powerful hold various busybodies have over contemporary governments, defeating the modern nanny state will depend on individuals taking a consistent stand against those who would tell them what they can and cannot consume.
So on this Repeal Day, raise a glass to freedom regained and to freedoms still to fight for. Cheers to the 21st Amendment!