The Fuzzy Moral Line Between Drinkers and Bartenders

The Global History of Prohibition: Smashing the Liquor machineMark Lawrence Schrad, Oxford University Press 725 pages, 34.995

Mark Lawrence Schrad feels Carrie Nation gets a bum rap for her actions as a vigilante and hatchet-wielding criminal who ravaged saloons during the first half of the 20th Century. Nation is “easy to ridicule 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 drinker and the drinker were not her enemies. But the man who sells.” Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. “This is important.”

This distinction that underpins Schrad’s wider effort to restore the image of prohibitionists is not as crucial as Schrad thinks. It doesn’t make sense to me. There would not be any brewers or vintners, wine merchants, spirits merchants, or tavern owners without drinkers. Schrad says that the customer does not have the status of a king. He is a mere serf.

Schrad’s defence of prohibition is based on the idea that individuals have no control over how much or whether they drink. Schrad confesses that he loves Manhattans and has avoided alcoholism. But without this fiction, Schrad’s distinction between the “drinker” and the “man who sells”, dissolves like 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 opposed elites or native leaders to colonizers. Schrad says that prohibitionionism was not moralizing “thou shaltnts”, but rather a progressive shield to marginalized and suffering peoples in order to protect themselves against further exploitation.

Schrad, while trying to rectify stereotypes about prohibitionists indulges in broad stereotypes regarding liquor vendors whom he reflexively calls “unscrupulous and predatory”. He emphasizes that the liquor joint of his time was nothing like Sam Malone’s “cozy and respectable bar.” Cheers“Where everyone knows your name”; the proprietor acts “like a best friend or therapist” to ensure his customers return home safely 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 wrote that he “could not refuse to accept any habitual drunkard” as a oath. This was in order to protect the revenue of the tsar. He would happily continue his service until customers’ pockets were empty. This forced them to change their clothes and then eject them from the cold to go naked. 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.

These are some extreme cases, but Schrad’s main thesis states that all liquor suppliers around the globe were guilty of outrageous violations that explain prohibition. In many cases, 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, and exploitation?

Schrad wants to paint alcohol sellers in a negative light. He is driven to contradictory. 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’s description of the social and medical harms that alcoholism causes is undisputed. 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 description of Mohandas Gandhi’s protests at Indian liquor shops, where his campaign for “nonviolent cooperation” focused because of their revenue generation, demonstrates the importance of individual drinkers’ choices. Schrad says that nationalists would not only boycott liquor, but they would also actively discourage potential drinkers from government-owned stores. Although they did not prevent entry with force, seven to eight picketers might verbally harass customers who were in the queue, sometimes using’very filthy languages’. Even worse, customers who completed purchases were often subjected to further abuse when they left.

Gandhi was horrified at the violence and protests that turned to murder. 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. We will now examine this distinction in U.S. context.

Contrary to current drug laws the 18th Amendment as well the Volstead Act didn’t prohibit possession and consumption. However, they banned the manufacture as well as sale and transport of intoxicating alcohols. Home brewing, wine making and distilling were all prohibited, with the exception of religious or medical reasons. If they were caught making their own alcoholic beverages, even those with the equipment and knowledge could face punishment. 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. These problems were made worse by Prohibition, which also encouraged violence and facilitated organized crime. It also undermined civil liberties. Prohibition did not unambiguously discourage excessive drinking. It encouraged suppliers to use more powerful products, making it easier for them to smuggle. This drove the consumption underground and weakening social institutions that promote moderation. Many Americans that initially supported Prohibition were convinced by these effects that this “noble experiment” had failed.

Schrad has a great deal of empathy for people, but it is difficult to sympathize with those who drink in anger and think that their choices are his. Schrad assumes that politicians should have the right to pursue policies which promote public welfare.

Schrad notes that John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher who advocated “great reforms”, including universal suffrage and equality 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 of their sale, in fact, is as it is intended, and prohibition of their usage.” Mill wrote that the infringement is against the freedom of both the seller and the consumer.

Schrad disapproves of Mill’s “right to drink argument”, because it “effectively exonerated liquor trafficker predations; man who sells just disappears from 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 the buyer is cooperative? Schrad makes a distinction between political rights, which Schrad says is based on Enlightenment principles, and economic liberties which are clearly not. However, this distinction is as blurred as the line between “the drinker” and “the man selling.”

Schrad has the right to religious freedom and freedom of expression. Without economic liberty, such as the ability to purchase land to build a church and the rights to use communication tools, it is difficult to enjoy these rights. All their rights, including the right to receive the benefits of their labor, are at risk if they don’t. This means that their livelihoods will depend upon the discretion and generosity of the state.

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.