A Year of Legal Liquor
The extraordinary thing about the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment is how little difference it has made. I know for a fact that the prohibition brethren looked for a gaudy Saturnalia of boozing, very useful to their cause, and I suspect that many of the brewers, distillers, and vintners entertained the same beatific vision. But, as everyone knows, there has been nothing of the sort. On the contrary, the country has taken the change quietly, and if its habits have been modified at all it is in the direction of a greater abstemiousness. The cocktail is everywhere under competition from milder apiritifs, and there is so little call for strong beer that most of the brewers .are holding their alcohol content at 3.6 per cent.
The demand for each and every variety of alcoholic beverage seems to be less than the supply. The new distilleries that were set up in haste following repeal are finding marketing a difficult problem, and many of them are already operating on part time. The wine dealers, whether they handle California wines or are importers, have larger stocks in hand than they can sell. And the brewers, always the whipping-boys of the booze business, go to bed at night hugging the clammy fact that the perc apita consumption of malt liquors is still hardly more than a third of what it was in 1909-13.
It is not difficult to find reasons why the country has thus failed to go on the expected jamboree. One of the most obvious is a kind of reaction from the effects of prohibition itself. That the Eighteenth Amendment was a failure is now admitted by everyone, but let us not forget that in large areas it reduced the supply of strong drink materially, and that in all areas it made getting the stuff somewhat onerous and hazardous, and raised the price. Thus drinking became a pursuit that was at once exciting and expensive, and engaging in it was public notice that the practitioner was both a bold and saucy fellow, and one capable of what ,Thorstein Veblen used to call conspicuous waste.
If repeal had made drinking cheap and at the same time preserved something of its exhilarating naughtiness, there would have been a great rush of customers, and the melodramatic dreams of the prohibitionists might have come true. And if it had made drinking lawful but kept it very expensive, the same effect might have been produced. gut what it actually achieved was a destruction of both motives for excess. At one stroke taking a drink became as banal an act as having one's shoes shined, and simultaneously the price dropped far enough to discourage the ostentatious without going far enough to inflame the thrifty. So the demand quickly settled down to parity with the actual national appetite, which turned out to be very moderate.
How did it become so moderate? Here again, it seems to me, we may seek a cause in the effects of prohibition. The kind of boozing that the Volstead Act fomented was so reckless and so plainly dangerous that it alarmed wets as well as drys, and they emerged from the nightmare in a prudent and even cautious mood. That mood is still upon them. There is a general sense of relief that the provocations of the thirteen dismal years are no more, and along with it goes a general inclination to deal with alcohol warily. Thus the very failure of prohibition helped to achieve one of its objects.
The present taxes on alcoholic beverages were fixed by politicians seeking money to spend, not by statesmen seeking the public welfare, and in more than one way they are arbitrary and absurd. Nevertheless, taking them together, there is a rough approximation to wisdom in them, for they have reduced the cost of drinks without making them too cheap. The chief defect in them is in the Liquor Taxing Act of January 11 , 1934, which lays a tax of $5 a barrel on beer. In addition, there are State taxes in most of the States, and brewers and distributors have to pay heavy license fees, and to operate their establishments under rules which greatly augment the expense.
The net result is that the commoner varieties of lager beer, which used to go to the retailer at $7 or $8 a barrel, now cost him $12, and he is quite unable to serve a sizable schooner at a nickel. Inasmuch as millions of the votes against the Eighteenth Amendment were piled up on the promise that the old-time schooner would return, there would seem to be some deceit here, and the lowly have a just grievance againsthe Brain Trust. The more solvent have a grievance too, for the finer brands of American beer now sell at from $21 to $25 a barrel, and the half-liter mug that used to be 15 cents is now 25 or 30. The imported beers are drunk only by beer fanatics in the higher income-rax brackets, for they lie under a customs duty of $1 a gallon or $31 a barrel, and bring 50 cents a half-liter over the bar.
The American brewers hope to induce Congress to reduce the internal-revenue tax, and it seems probable that they wil1 succeed. In the golden days before the war it was but $1 a barrel, and the national consumption was twenty galIons per capita. It was raised to $1.50 in 1914, to $3 in 1917, and to $6 in 1919. It dropped ta $5 last January, but it is still too high tq produce the maximum revenue. If it were reduced to $3 the five-cent schooner would come back, the national consumption would be doubled or tripled, and the Treasury would get many millions more from beer than it gets now.
Moreover, this increased consumption would tend to diminish the use of bard liquors. The present supply .of the latter comes mainly from lawful distilleries, but there is still some bqotlegging, and Joseph H. Choate, Jr., director of the Federal Alcohol Control Administration, has been breaking into the papers of late with plans to put it down. The sensible scheme would seem to be to reduce the tax on whiskey and its congeners to such a point that bootlegging will be made unprofitable, and yet keep it high enough to make hard liquors more expensive than light wines and beer. Whether or not it is possible mathematically to attain both objects remains to be seen.
The present internal-revenue tax on still wines-IO cents a gallon on those showing less than 14 per cent of alcohol by volume, 20 cents on those showing from 14 per December 12, 19341 The Nation .662 cent to 21 per cent, and 40 cents on those above-is certainly not burdensome, but for other reasons the revival of the wine trade has languished. The chief of these reasons is that most of the American growers continue to imitate European wines and brands, instead of developing varieties of their own. Thus American wines strike most persons as bogus, or, at all events, as second-rate, and it will probably be a long while before we reach even the moderate pre-war consumption of 0.6 gallons per capita. As for foreign wines, the duty of $1.25 a gallon and the low purchasing power of the boloney dollar combine to put them out of reach of all save the relatively rich.
The prohibitionists got so dreadful a beating in 1932 that they have not yet recovered from it. Some of them, led by Deets Pickett, chief torpedo of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, argue sadly that “the drink problem is now a problem in psychology,” and that what is needed to solve it is a campaign of education. To this end they begin reassembling the somewhat frayed and dubious statistics that used to be their chief glory, and make efforts to arouse the evangelical churches. But the response seems to be poor, and they are very short of money.
Bishop James Cannonj Jr., takes a somewhat different line. He believes that the Eighteenth Amendment is out of the Constitution to stay, but he plans to tempt Congress with a new amendment giving it “power to enact uniform laws restricting or prohibiting the traffic in alcoholic beverages.” This amendment, however, is not ,likely to make much progress, for its obvious effect would be to throw the liquor question into every Congressional campaign, and so provide life meal-tickets for demagogues on both sides. Whether or not the bishop still has any considerable following among his fellow-Wesleyans I don’t know. Some time ago they exiled him td California, the Methodist Devil’s Island, and in other ways showed a lamentable falling off of their old confidence in him. But at seventy he is still full of malicious animal magnetism, and it would be a mistake today, as it was in 1919, to underestimate his horse-power.
Most of the other eminent fuglemen of the dry millennium have turned to other branches of moral endeavor-for example, the crusade against lubricious movies, the Boy Scout movement, the New Deal, and the war against war. Others have simply retired to lick their wounds. Colonel Patrick H. Callahan of Louisville, the only Catholic prohibitionist ever exhibited before multitudes, has sought consolation in the Thomistic metaphysic, and almost alone among the apostolate, maintains his serenity. Some time ago he was arguing that prohibition was so nearly dead that in order to -revive it some other name for it would have to be invented. But so far he has not suggested one.
The decision of a few States-for—example, Kansas, Alabama, and North Carolina-to stay dry—has heartened the drys a bit, but also spoiled some of their ammunition. They used to argue that if the Eighteenth Amendment were repealed these enclaves of virtue would be flooded with booze from the wet States. But nothing of the sort has happened. The simple truth is that the wet States are now more sober than they were before 1920, and that most of the really heavy and hoggish boozing is going on in the dry States.