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.