Russ Roberts talks here to Daniel Okent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, on the American prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century.
What is intriguing is Okent's explanation of the motivations of the various actors for and against prohibition. Lining up in favour of prohibition included:
The Ku Klux Klan
The Klan are best known today for persecuting black people, but they were also bitterly anti-Catholic, and by the late 19th century worried by the huge wave of Catholic migration from Europe to the US. I wrote before about the fears that the 1840s Protestant Known Nothing movement had of the massive inward migration of Catholics, deemed to be superstitious and traitorous, allied to an Italian Pope instead of the American state. Okrent explained that Catholic politicians often rallied support among the Catholics in saloons:
The saloon was the perfect place to organize politics around--the Democratic machines that grew up in the late 19th century came out of the saloons. They were electing people to Congress who didn't look like or sound like the typical native-born American from southern Ohio. They saw that they were losing their country, and they blamed liquor. Also saw that beverages were a very large part of the immigrant groups. The Irish and Italians, part of daily life to have beer, wine, or whisky, even if in moderation.
Denying the Catholics alcohol might deny them political power, and anti-Catholic Protestants were more than happy to see that.
Around the turn of the century some Americans were calling for enlightened government to pass intelligent laws that would reshape society. Social activists saw the very real destructive nature of alcohol use in the US, where clean water was rare and the poor relied on distilled booze for their hydration, and genuinely believed that stamping out alcohol use would benefit the poor and repair the social fabric. For some there was an element of paternalism: wealthy progressives deciding that poor people could not be trusted to decide for themselves so that prohibition was for their own good.
Soft drinks companies were eager to wipe out their alcoholic rivals.
The Industrial Workers of the World 'believed that liquor was a tool used by capitalists to keep the working man down', and supported Prohibition.
Okrent does not go into details here, but he remarks that men did most of the drinking, that the prohibition movement and women's rights movement went hand in hand since around 1850 and that they 'entered the Constitution virtually together'.
In opposition to these groups were those who opposed Prohibition:
Wealthy conservative Republicans
These men had rejected all of the socially progressive policies coming to popularity in this period: 'women's suffrage, income tax amendment, child labor laws, Prohibition.'
These men opposed Prohibition because of the risk it posed as a top-down federal law imposed on the states. They wanted to preserve state rights (to protect Southern racist policies):
...because to acknowledge that the government had the power to do this was to acknowledge that the 15th Amendment had validity. They wanted to continue to hold onto the argument of states' rights; can't hold on to that if you are going to have a federal proscription on liquor.
Catholics and Jews
Catholics liked to drink! They also rallied around saloons. Jews also opposed Prohibition, although Okrent does not go into great detail. In the end the Prohibition created exemptions for Catholic clergy and Jewish rabbis to use wine in their religious ceremonies - which quickly attracted corruption:
Any Rabbi could welcome as many people to his congregation as he wished; Talmed Torah in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles had 80 families in 1920, and a year later had 1000 families.
It's a fascinating interview on the diverse motivations for an illiberal law, eventually passed against the wills of the majority of Americans, and widely flouted. A nice reminder that those calling for changes in law on noble grounds may be driven by ignoble incentives.