Opinion: Daily Journal

Prohibition ended with repeal, but efforts to regulate and restrict alcohol continue

The misguided and ultimately debilitating and tragic ban of alcohol that we called Prohibition was, at its core, about control.

Control of our time, our choices, and our habits. Control of our money and our freedom to live and to prosper as we saw fit.

Lawmakers and bureaucrats use and abuse the word, sometimes in an almost flippant manner. As N.C. Senate Bill 155 bumped along to passage, one lawmaker bemoaned government’s impending loss of “control,” which is so much a part of our alcohol culture in North Carolina, i.e., Alcoholic Beverage Control.

John Locke Foundation President Kory Swanson and I traveled Dec. 5 to Washington, D.C., and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to celebrate Repeal Day — the end of Prohibition. The program included a panel discussion, including CEI president Kent Lassman, and Richard Morrison, executive producer of the wonderful short film, “I, Whiskey,” which is part of a CEI film series. The series began with “I, Pencil,” a classic autobiography of a simple writing tool, Lassman said.

CEI and Passing Lane Films produced “I, Whiskey,’ which, I wrote in a blog, touches on the distillers, farmers, mixologists, restaurant owners, and whiskey enthusiasts who comprise the soul of the spirit.

“Markets are made from people,” said Lassman, “and when we lose sight of the empathetic impulse and the need to meet someone and ask, ‘What can I do that’s a value to that other person? we lose sight of what markets are about and how they operate.

“Whiskey is a delightful way to tell that story.”

Slick and well-done, the captivating and thirst-provoking film is entertaining and inspirational, an ode to America’s indomitable spirit and taste for ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1919, made producing, selling, transporting, and importing liquor a crime. But, as I wrote in Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State, North Carolina had jumped on the Prohibition wagon much sooner.

A referendum vote on May 26, 1908, made it the first state in the South to ban alcohol. Even when nationwide Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment’s passage in 1933, North Carolina failed to ratify the amendment. It wasn’t until 1937, when the Alcoholic Beverage Control system was set up to sell alcohol in North Carolina counties, that Prohibition officially ended in the state.

The state allowed breweries and wineries to operate shortly after Prohibition, but North Carolina lawmakers didn’t lift the ban on making liquor until 1979.

“A hundred years ago, North Carolina had more distilleries than any state in the nation, and then all of a sudden it went away,” Keith Nordan of Carolina Distillery in Lenoir told me.

All that knowledge, skill and expertise. That passion and those ideas. That aspect of the free market. Legally gone for some 80 years.

Swanson spoke about the rich history of making liquor in North Carolina. Of Junior Johnson running from revenuers and of the roots of NASCAR. Of state imposition and control.

“When you mention Prohibition in North Carolina, the first thing I think of is bootleggers and Baptists,” Swanson said.

Considering the disaster that was Prohibition, one would think we might have learned our lesson. To never again disavow a free market or to clear a dirty path for unscrupulous producers of toxic liquor and violent criminals like Al Capone.

Apparently not. Again, refer to the arguments against S.B. 155 as exhibit A.

“Unfortunately,” said Morrison, “the impulses and mentality that brought us Prohibition in the beginning of the 20th century are still very much with us here in the 21st century. There’s still all sorts of PR campaigns, legislative efforts government regulations out there seeking to ban, tax and restrict … all sorts of legal things.”

Consider the effort to outlaw and restrict soda and snack foods, small toys, and even bottled water because the bottles aren’t biodegradable.

The scare stories have changed, Morrison said, but the goal is still largely the same.

“The people who support more government control of what we can eat, drink, and smoke today think that their judgment is superior to ours and that the government should be on hand to enforce their judgment on all of us.

“When your job is to study potential health threats from alcohol … you don’t spend a lot of time collecting stories about how fun, relationships, and good times are also part of the equation.

“The people who make a ruckus are the ones who are going to get heard. If the only people out there complaining are the ones who think drinking a glass of whiskey and eating a steak are backward, neanderthal behaviors that need to be stamped out, then things are going to get a lot more expensive and annoying for whiskey-drinking carnivores.”

Stand up for your right to have fun, he said. Stand up for your freedom to choose and for individual liberty.

“I assure you, the people who take a dim view of drinking and nightlife have plenty of time on their hands. The people who want to plug every state budget gap with ever-higher taxes on alcohol have all their talking points typed up and ready to go.”

There’s that word again.

“I think that’s one of the most honestly named government agencies. It’s not the consumer benefit agency. It’s the ‘control’ agency.’ The first and foremost thing that they’re worried about is controlling things.”