Associated Press

There’s No Closing the Tap: A Conversation With Daniel Okrent

Vital City

December 13, 2023

What lessons does Prohibition teach New York?

What lessons does Prohibition teach New York?

Vital City · Dan Okrent on Prohibition

New York is a city brimming with bars and clubs, with restaurants that serve beer and wine and liquor, and with liquor stores. One need only take a look at the state Liquor Authority’s map to see how ubiquitous access to alcohol is

Alcohol has been with America from our earliest days. The Founding Father most closely identified with the city, Alexander Hamilton, said of alcoholic beverages, “there appears to be no article … which is an object of more equal consumption throughout the United States.” In 1889, Jacob Riis counted the number of saloons in Manhattan south of 14th Street; they numbered 4,065, compared to 111 churches.

Alcohol is consumed millions of times a year in New York City without incident, typically as a “social lubricant.” Many a couple has met over a drink (or two or three). In every type of neighborhood, friends bond over beer while watching sports, gossiping or competing in pub quizzes. 

Of course, excessive drinking also does tremendous damage to the city and to society. Alcohol addiction wrecks families and careers and human health. Drinking is associated with violence and domestic violence. Statewide, drunk driving kills more than 300 people every year — about 50 people within the city limits.

The damage done by alcohol is part of what motivated one of America’s most misbegotten social experiments, the 13 years of Prohibition between 1920 and 1933.  But that was far from the only driver. As Daniel Okrent writes in his book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” published in 2010, the movement to outlaw sales and consumption of most beer, wine and spirits through a constitutional amendment had as much if not more to do with race (Southern whites who feared inebriated Blacks were among Prohibition’s most vociferous supporters); religion (it was Protestants who at least professed to teetotal, Catholics and Jews who more often drank); sex (many women reviled how liquor fueled spousal abuse); xenophobia (Irish and German immigrants loved their beer, and those who didn’t love them targeted it); and economic power (the appearance of the federal income tax enabled Prohibition, since the revenue could replace alcohol taxes; later, wealthy Americans were eager to repeal it to put some of that burden back).

We recently talked to Okrent about how alcohol has shaped New York — and what the attempts to ban it can teach us about substance use in the present day. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Credit: Arthur Mount. Portrait of Daniel Okrent.

Vital City: You wrote a sweeping history of Prohibition in the United States. How was New York City’s story distinct from America’s at large?

Daniel Okrent: In cities that were coastal or had a large Catholic population, Prohibition never really made a huge difference. I mean, of course, it affected the lives of people, the world that they lived in. But as H.L. Mencken said about Baltimore, which was coastal and Catholic and very urban, he said to get a drink in Baltimore, you had to know a judge or a cop. Beyond that, it wasn’t a problem. 

In Detroit, they said that you would have to go into a bar and shout really loudly over the crowd to get the bartender’s attention, and that was similar in New York. The police commissioner of the time, Grover Whalen, estimated there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York during Prohibition. People were aware that it was the law of the land, but they simply didn’t live by it. In fact, I think the case can be made that it was easier to get a drink in New York during Prohibition than it was after Prohibition. 

VC: What did studying the period teach you about the importance of alcohol in shaping the culture of this city and of cities in general?

DO: It was an essential part of city life as it has been ever since there have been cities. 

The primary social institution in the immigrant communities of New York was the saloon, and it provided a variety of functions. One, and I guess chiefly, it was a place where a man, and it was only men, could go to get drunk. But secondarily, it was where one could go to get a job, not just being hired by the saloon, but because things like the Longshoreman’s Shape-Up took place in conjunction with saloons. 

And the political organization of New York City and of Boston and of Baltimore and of New Orleans and of Detroit and of Chicago — all were built around the saloon. The Democratic Party as an urban institution arose in the saloons, where immigrant groups found the apparatus to create political power and where political favors could be dispensed. It was an absolutely essential part of the Americanization of the immigrant population.

But much more broadly, we can say: There are certain human appetites once established that can’t be diminished, certainly not by fiat. 

The police commissioner estimated there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York during Prohibition. People were aware that it was the law of the land, but they simply didn’t live by it.

VC: Could you say the same about all drug use? If you accept that trying to ban alcohol was a bad idea, are other drug bans a bad idea — or can we find constructive middle paths that allow use but deter abuse?

DO: You cannot successfully legislate against an appetite that is a) widely held, and b) in most instances does not have victims other than those who consume it themselves. Now obviously, drunk driving and other aspects of drunken behavior do have victims, but overwhelmingly it’s a self-inflicted wound. And if a wound is truly self-inflicted, people are going to continue exercising it and exploiting it or succumbing to it. 

I do think you have to make a distinction between alcohol and other drugs in either direction — milder ones like tobacco, more extreme ones like addictive opiates. Alcohol occupies a nice comfortable spot where it is by and large enjoyable, by and large a social lubricant, by and large something that makes people feel better without, in most cases, severe damage to anyone.

VC: There of course is a great deal of societal harm that goes along with excessive drinking, from family problems to violence. How do you reckon with that, and if you were to stack alcohol up on the hierarchy of harms, wouldn’t it actually be up there compared to other drugs?

DO: Yes, but that’s going to be irrespective of any laws. And I think that was pretty clearly proven in the 19th century and early 20th century. The national impulse of Prohibition came about because of spousal abuse, because of people losing their jobs because they were too drunk to come in in the morning, because of violence. 

These things all existed pre-Prohibition, and they continued to exist during Prohibition because people who want alcohol will find it. 

We have to ask: Do we prefer a social regime and a governmental regime where anybody can get it and do whatever they want? Or do we want one where there’s some control on it so there can be some monitoring, some sense of responsibility? 

Before Prohibition, there was no such thing as closing hours for saloons. They were open as long as there was somebody there who was ready to drink. And during Prohibition, the same thing. If a 13-year-old walked into a bar that happened to be next door to a school at 8:00 in the morning, the 13-year-old could get a drink. 

Then, repeal brought about various laws in New York that did indeed control the amount of alcohol people were consuming. The very fact of liability laws — such as the so-called dram shop laws that hold the seller of alcohol responsible for the behavior of those to whom it’s been sold — that alone is an enormous control on drinking, as you know if you’ve ever seen anybody thrown out of a bar, as I think we all have.

You cannot successfully legislate against an appetite that is a) widely held, and b) in most instances does not have victims other than those who consume it themselves.

VC: To you, does cannabis occupy a similar position to alcohol — good to regulate, bad to ban?

DO: Well, we’re in the process of finding out. I think that that’s likely to be the case, but it is really way too early to know whether the nearly universal accessibility of cannabis in many parts of the country, in New York right now, will follow the same pattern. 

We have decades of governmental control of the consumption of alcohol, governmental impulses that affect how we consume alcohol, closing hours, age limits, where a bar can be located. We know things about how society and individuals interact with alcohol that we don’t yet know about the ready availability of cannabis.

VC: The legal cannabis rollout in New York is almost a photo negative of Prohibition era. Here, we have an illegal substance becoming legal, yet the equivalent of speakeasies — black market shops — have popped up everywhere, and they don’t abide by siting rules or other rules about responsible marketing. 

DO: No, I mean, it’s certainly similar to Prohibition in the sense that speakeasies in New York after 1925, 1926, with some exceptions, were very much in the open. Nobody was hiding it. It was five bucks to a cop on the beat. The state Prohibition enforcement law was itself repealed in 1922. The federal laws remained in place, but New York, like many other cities, was perfectly content with Prohibition at the time — except government wasn’t content because they were losing out on tax revenue, which effectively was enriching mobsters — their take was as large a levy as the taxes had been.

VC: A major thread in the book is how the interplay between the income tax and alcohol tax led to Prohibition in the first place and then to the repeal of Prohibition. What is the right approach to alcohol taxes today?

DO: Prohibition could not have happened without the 16th Amendment to the Constitution giving the federal government power to collect income tax, which was ratified in 1913. Until there was a replacement for the revenue that the federal government was getting from alcohol taxes, there was no way Prohibition could have taken place. Similarly, at the other end of Prohibition, the desperate need for tax revenue during the Depression was so extreme that we had to bring back something that would enable the government to function; governments were running on fumes at that point. 

Today, it’s a very different situation. We live in a culture that resists broad-based taxes, even in New York. So instead we bring in new revenue by collecting it from individuals who want a particular product — a so-called “user tax.”

VC: What did the Prohibitionists get right?

DO: They recognized that drinking in excess was a really terrible social problem. And it is much less of a social problem today than it was 100 years ago. Make that 110 years ago, now that we’re more than 100 years past the beginning of prohibition. 

It was a horrible, horrible social problem when it was uncontrolled for the reasons I cited before — its economic effect, its effect on family life particularly.

What the Prohibitionists didn’t understand is you can’t just say “no.” In fact, there’s an argument that could be made that had the Volstead Act been somewhat looser and continued to allow beer and what they called light wines, that Prohibition might’ve worked. Or at least it would not have been such a clear failure; there was no outlet for somebody who wanted to get a little bit tipsy. The Volstead Act said that anything that had over one-half of 1% of alcohol was proscribed, which meant that even sauerkraut was formally illegal, much less a 3.2% beer or even a 5% beer.

I do think you have to make a distinction between alcohol and other drugs in either direction — milder ones like tobacco, more extreme ones like addictive opiates.

VC: There were big rifts within the alcohol industry.

DO: Indeed, there was a war between the distillers and the brewers. The brewers, in fact, argued for certain levels of Prohibition because they wanted to put the distillers out of business. In some instances, they even argued for the health benefits of beer. Some brewers referred to their product as “liquid bread.”

On any given intersection, there might be four different saloons, and each one was serving only the beer of a particular brewery that was providing it for them and was also providing them with the glassware and the silverware and any number of other things in exchange for which the bar owners would only sell Rheingold, or whatever it might have been. Hard liquor was a much more difficult thing to handle on a mass basis.

VC: We still make subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions, both legal and cultural, between types of alcohol. 

DO: New York is a great example: You can buy beer in a grocery store, but you can’t buy wine or booze in a grocery store. And that was a product of the post-repeal reforms that were put in place. Beer is just another thing you drink. It’s not this poison or this potential poison. The brewers had great lobbyists.

In terms of drinking outdoors, and I just came back from five days in New Orleans, which makes New York look like a Quaker community by comparison. It’s 24 hours a day walking down the street, open container, no limits at all. Here we’ve got some limits that do kind of foster the distinction that you’re making — that do put hard liquor in a different category, especially from beer, but also to a degree from wine. I mean, I can’t tell you how many alcoholics I’ve known in my life who say, well, I’m only drinking wine.

VC: Where do you think we’re headed? Do you think we’re going in a broadly libertarian direction, or do you expect pendulum swings? 

DO: Well, I think both, but basically, yes, more libertarian for a few reasons. When we see greater societal harm from the legalization of marijuana than we have so far seen, I can see that there might be a reaction. Laws about public behavior while under the influence exist for alcohol, but don’t really exist to my knowledge in many states for marijuana. Even in the beginning of the legalization of marijuana, if you were pulled over for bad driving by a cop, he or she didn’t have any means of measuring the presence of cannabis in your system. If we see real problems exploding because of legalization, then we’ll see some restriction. 

But generally speaking, I think we are moving in a libertarian direction because that’s the nature of human history, and because the prospect of tax revenue is too delicious to too many governments.

VC: So, hardly anyone obeyed the letter, much less the spirit of the law. What was the broader consequence of that defiance, that cynicism?

DO: I think that that was one of the other things besides the need for tax revenue that brought about the end of Prohibition. The utterly visible, omnipresent breaking of the law led people to think this was going to destroy respect for the law. If you have laws that aren’t enforced, you’re undercutting the very idea of law.