The Fuzzy Moral Line Between Drinkers and Bartenders

Prohibition in the Global History: The Smashing of the Liquor MachineMark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford University Press), 725 pages. $34.95

Mark Lawrence Schrad believes Carrie Nation is a hatchet-wielding vigilante that rampaged through saloons in the early 20th century. Schrad gives Nation a bad rap. Nation is “easily mocked as a Bible-thumping “crank”, “a freak,” “a lunatic,” or “puritanical Killjoy”, Schrad says. However, Nation was actually courageous and kind and dedicated to “justice and love” and “benevolence.” Schrad (a Villanova political scientist) writes that Nation was her enemy. “The drink or the person who drinks is not what she wanted, but rather the man who sold it.” Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. “This is important.”

It’s not clear that this distinction which is the foundation of Schrad’s larger effort to redeem alcohol prohibitionists’ reputations is as vital as Schrad believes. This distinction is not clear to me. It would be impossible to have tavernkeepers, brewers and vintners without drinkers. Schrad tells us that the customer isn’t king, but he is barely a servant.

Schrad’s defence of prohibition is based on the idea that individuals have no control over how much or whether they drink. Schrad admits to liking Manhattans, but seems to have avoided an unfortunate descent into alcoholism. Without that fiction, the distinction Schrad made between “the drinker”, and “the seller” is as brittle as sugar in an old fashioned.

Schrad’s extensive study is the result of groundbreaking and prodigious research. However, it complicates our conventional view of alcohol prohibition which views it as an American reactionary phenomenon. Schrad believes that the ban on alcohol is a last-gasp reaction of conservative and rural native-born Protestants to the growing tide of immigration, urbanization, and multiculturalism in America’s turn of the century. He shows that the movement was global and often pitted “subaltern” people against the elites, as well as native leaders against colonizers. Schrad asserts that prohibitionionism was not moralizing the “thou shall nots” but rather a “progressive shield for marginalized peoples who are suffering and oppressed to prevent further exploitation.”

Schrad is adamant about correcting stereotypes of prohibitionists. However, he indulges in stereotypical views of liquor sellers, who he reflexively labels as “unscrupulous or predatory” even as he tries to fix them. Schrad emphasizes that liquor shops of the day were not like Sam Malone’s “cozy” and “respectable” bars. CheersThe proprietor acts as a “therapist” or friend who helps customers return home after they’ve overindulged.

Contrary to popular belief, the “shyster” in charge at the village kabak was the “primary interface between the peasant population and the predatory government,” who had the vodka-production monopoly. Schrad says that “he couldn’t refuse any drunkard who was a regular drinker, because the tsar would lose his revenue.” He was willing to continue to serve customers till their pockets were full, until they had to give up their clothing and then eject them from the cold. Russian society was dependent so much on alcohol that, in 1859, it violently crushed a “temperance revolution” in Spassk. Other places soldiers literally forced vodka down the throats recalcitrant peasants.

Although these extreme instances are rare, Schrad believes that many liquor suppliers worldwide were guilty in gross abuses which explains the prohibitionist response. In many instances, that proved to be true. Schrad’s negative portrayal of the industry leaves you wondering: Is there a honest liquor merchant? Or a happy client? Were saloons only a place of misery, corruption?

Schrad sees alcohol sellers as evil and is determined to make them look bad. Schrad blames them for selling high proof products which he finds addictive. However, he faults them also for watering down their beverages which should by logic have made their wares safer. They were criticised for having low prices which encourage overconsumption and high prices which further fuel poverty. The government liquor monopolies may be good or bad depending on who controls them: the avaricious Russia-based autocrats, or the enlightened Swedish regulators.

Schrad outlines the medical and social consequences of drinking alcohol. It is not clear whether these costs are justified in criminalizing peaceful transactions between consenting adult. Schrad’s definition of drinkers as “the liquor machines” is blurred here.

Schrad’s story of Mohandas Gandhi and his followers protesting Indian liquor stores is a clear example of how the individual choices of drinkers are relevant. This was because Indian liquor stores were a source of revenue for the British Raj. Schrad explained that not only would the nationalists refuse to drink liquor but would also discourage would-be customers from going to government stores. While they wouldn’t prevent entry through force, the seven to eight picketers (usually seven or eight) would verbally harass potential customers and sometimes use’very filthy’ language. Even worse, customers who completed purchases were often subjected to further abuse when they left.

Gandhi was shocked when the protests turned into violence. Even though the first tactics were clear, it is evident that anti-liquor activists had angered drinkers and businesses who supplied them. It is difficult to reconcile Gandhi’s support for legal prohibition which requires the use force with Gandhi’s commitment to peace, tolerance, and cooperation.

Schrad insists, however that prohibitionists were not opposed to “the individual’s freedom to drink.” Instead, prohibitionists opposed profit-making in trafficking addictive substances. This distinction is made in the U.S.

Contrary to current drug laws the 18th Amendment as well the Volstead Act didn’t prohibit possession and consumption. They did, however, ban both the manufacture and transportation of intoxicating liquors. Home brewing, wine making and distilling were all prohibited, with the exception of religious or medical reasons. Even those who were able to produce their own alcohol beverages could be punished if caught. The prohibition on commercial production and distribution had an obvious impact on Americans’ legal right to enjoy “the individual’s” freedom to consume alcohol.

Schrad’s ties with the legal alcohol sector were hampered by the black market that was created as a result of that policy. They made these problems even worse and encouraged violence, organized crime, and undermined civil liberties. Prohibition didn’t deter excess drinking. Instead, it pushed for stronger products and made it more difficult to smuggle. Consumption also went underground. Many Americans that initially supported Prohibition were convinced by these effects that this “noble experiment” had failed.

Schrad is adamant about his empathy for the average man but he doesn’t have patience with indignant drunkards who believe their choice of recreational activities are not his business. Schrad believes that it is normal for political leaders to decide what policies will benefit the public welfare.

Schrad points out that John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, advocated many of the same reforms as prominent prohibitionists like Frederick Douglass. These included abolition and universal suffrage as well as equal rights for women. Mill broke with Douglass et al. When it came time to limit the consumption of alcoholic beverages, Mill parted ways with Douglass et al. Mill stated that “Prohibition on their sale is, in fact, as intended to be,” and also prohibited their use. The infringement being complained about is not against the sellers liberty, but rather on the buyers and consumers rights.”

Schrad rejected Mill’s right-to-drink argument because it “effectively exonerated a liquor trafficker’s predations; and the man selling simply disappears out of the equation.” Schrad’s formula, however, makes the drinking person disappear from the equation because seemingly voluntary transactions can be deemed “predations.”

If you believe liberty to include the right to buy and sell property, then Mill may have an objection. But why not protect “the liberty to the seller” as long as Mill is truthful and willing to pay for it? Schrad distinguishes between “political right,” which Schrad claims are founded on “Enlightenment Principles”, and “economic liberty,” which, evidently, aren’t. This line, however, is not as clear as that between “the drinker” and “the man selling.”

Schrad enjoys religious freedom as well as the freedom to press. These rights are difficult to be exercised without the economic freedoms such as the right of a person to own land or tools for communication. People don’t get the fruits of labor. Their livelihoods are dependent on state discretion.

Schrad describes prohibition as “part of an ongoing people’s movement that strengthens international norms to defend human rights, dignity and equality against autocratic exploitation.” If human rights do not include economic liberty, the traditional forms of autocratic oppression can be easily replaced.