CRC - Social and Economic Control of Alcohol: The 21st Amendment in the 21st Century

Organization: CRC
Publication Date: 14 November 2007
Page Count: 264


When Prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment) was repealed by State ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment in December 1933, I was a teenager, but already familiar with beverage alcohol. My initial contact was through religion; for centuries alcohol in beverage form had been part of the customs of many organized religions, customs that were and are part of the traditions of my Jewish faith. During Prohibition, I had consumed alcohol in a family environment and also participated in the sale of alcohol. Our family owned the Buchman Wine Company in lower Manhattan Borough, New York City, and the sale of sacramental wine was permitted. Our largest customer was the Archdiocese of New York, Roman Catholic Church.

At that latter stage of my youth, it was not difficult to recognize that the sacramental and medicinal sales of beverage alcohol during Prohibition were not the only exceptions to principles of control over the access to beverage alcohol. The speakeasy was not a myth, nor were the racketeer and bootlegger. There was great disrespect for the rule of law. Compounding control over the defects in Prohibition was the enormous weight imposed upon the people and the nation's institutions by the unemployment and human misery inflicted during the Great Depression. It was no surprise that there was rejoicing by many when repeal was enacted, because it was seen by them to be a signal of hope and opportunity for the future. It certainly presented opportunities for me.

It was an exciting time for someone who grew up in the industry. For several years following repeal, I was busy completing university education, while working as a plant manager, then comptroller of a multi-state wine producer and importer of foreign wines. By 1939, I had begun a law partnership with my late brother, Henry. That firm and its progeny have served clients in the beverage and hospitality industries since then, and continue under our family name today.

I witnessed the federal government's initial control of the alcoholic beverage industry encounter difficulties. That federal system, based upon codes established under the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 16, 1933 and the Federal Alcohol Control Administration set up by presidential executive order, became unraveled as a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Schechter Poultry Corp. vs. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (May 27, 1935). A good part of the efforts of Congress during the Summer of 1935, which I was able to monitor in Washington D.C., was directed at hearings and debates over what became the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of August 29, 1935 (27 U.S.C. 201, et seq.).

The state governments, however, seemed to fare better in the execution of their initial control over alcohol. Perhaps this was because of the vigorous public debates that took place in connection with the process of ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, or with the contribution of information infused into the crafting of regulatory systems that was extended by a singular forward-looking individual bearing a family name familiar to many, even today.

Well before repeal of Prohibition, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who utilized the Rockefeller family fortune to establish scores of philanthropic enterprises, foresaw and supported its coming, as the widespread disregard for the law was, in his view, an evil even greater than intemperance. A lifelong personal teetotaler and supporter of total abstinence, he commissioned a study to help prepare careful plans of control, so that the evils against which Prohibition initially was invoked could not easily return. His intentions were expressed in the foreword he penned for the publication of that study: Toward Liquor Control (Raymond B. Fosdick and Albert L. Scott, Harper & Brothers, 1933).

The results of that study are the subject of contrast, evaluation, and enhancement in the works presented in the pages that follow here. Unlike Mr. Rockefeller, I cannot acknowledge any role in commissioning this undertaking almost seventy-five years later. I am, however, pleased and honored to have been asked to preface the introduction to you, and to present a few thoughts of my own about events since repeal....

America, except for its Native Peoples, was and is a nation of immigrants. Each culture has brought with it to these shores its own customs and religions, many of which incorporate the use of beverage alcohol. Prohibition was doomed from inception. The lawlessness during Prohibition was fueled by the criminal exploitation of the desire of the masses, not the glamorous image of the speakeasy. As long as Americans cherish personal and religious freedoms, Prohibition will not return.

Liquor control power has diminished as a function of government over the years, except for revenue generation. Priorities for the uses of resources have shifted away from fostering temperance. In contrast, consider, for example, that the first "commissioner" in New Jersey was personally designated by law to serve for no less than seven years and provided personal compensation of $13,000 (P.L. 1933, c. 436). In short, he essentially was free of political pressure and paid, in 2006 value, $201,600 a year. The New Jersey Governor's current maximum salary is $175,000.

Long after World War II, the nation was largely rural, with areas of urban concentration. Brewers and even distillers were regional in nature. Wholesale distributors were numerous and local. The local tavern or restaurant was an institution of social gathering, even more so, when it presented the first public access to broadcast television. Largely, these businesses were owned by individuals who lived in the community. A confluence of two emerging trends illustrates a fundamental change that took place. Over several decades, Eisenhower's interstate highway network fueled suburban flight and weakened the nation's rail mass transit system. The automobile became a necessity. Broadcast television initially also was regional in nature, until a new program format was introduced to permit the entire nation to view an event at the same time. It was football on Monday nights; soon to be followed universally by both national network programming and commercial advertising of all kinds.

Before all this, the liquor control system was balanced by principles of local option: dry or wet communities, different hours of sale and types of licenses and, until the late 1980's, legal drinking age. Out of the family and local ethnic and political communities grew social expectations regarding responsible consumption or temperance, together with liquor control and law enforcement responses consistent with those communities' values. What has emerged over the decades is a larger more homogeneous national community, whose values and norms largely now are the product of other sources outside the traditional family.

Multiple generations of Americans have been educated about alcohol by way of advertising and entertainment communicated by an ever increasing number of new technologies. Cable television, the Internet, even telephones are interactive. Messages, images, and ideas are presented with speed and brevity. While apparently well intended, the information communicated often creates mixed or conflicting signals. Consider the advertising campaign for now ingrained proposition of the designated driver. While it is directed at highway safety, by implication it also inversely communicates another message. In essence, often it is acceptable for the intended passengers to over-consume, because there is an abstainer driving. Consider the signal sent by beverage alcohol brands sponsoring drivers and cars in the sport of motor racing. Addressing the impact of advertising and marketing upon intemperate consumption is the challenge for the future and requires both a narrowly tailored level of restraint upon commercial free speech and an authority empowered to articulate acceptable standards. The fortitude and leadership of the "liquor czars" of the earlier post-Prohibition period have been disabled over the passage of time. Some new champion of the principles of moderation and temperance is needed, if liquor control is to be reinvigorated.

Please turn now to the newer insights of the contributors who seek to move the process forward.