Prohibition’s nanny-state allies

By Rob Nikolewski on October 2, 2011
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You want to know one of the significant reasons you have to pay federal income tax each year?

Thank .

Before the nation lost its mind in 1919 and passed the 18th Amendment outlawing liquor, one-third of federal receipts came from the excise taxes on various liquors consumed in the United States. If you banned alcohol, how could the nation make up for those lost dollars? By instituting an income tax.

And like nearly every tax that is created, it A) never goes away and B) often expands.

When the income tax was instituted in 1913, it affected few Americans — the .

Now, the .

The income tax issue is just one of a number of political layers the ” on PBS looks at.

And one of the overarching lessons from studying the Prohibition era is the danger of big government — and people who think they know what’s best for you and are willing to use the levers of power to make you a good little citizen — and how a sweeping policy can become the law of the land (even if millions end up flouting it).

Part one of the three-part series aired Sunday night (Oct. 2). If you missed it, you can to see a couple of the segments on the PBS website.

Last year, I read the book the series was based on by , a wonderful writer who delivers a detailed and entertaining history of the era, when millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans became criminals.

But what’s really fascinating is how the oddest political bedfellows combined to make Prohibition a reality. Belying a common assumption, it wasn’t just due to a gaggle of up-tight social conservatives who somehow bewitched voters.

In fact, they supplied only a fraction of the explanation. Instead, a crazy quilt of members of the budding women’s rights movement, good-government Progressive leaders, industrialists (such as who thought a more sober workforce could be more productive) as well as those who thought the state could change human behavior through the sheer force of legislation all worked together to usher in a host of unintended consequences.

It’s funny how history — when looked at objectively — often contravenes the common narrative so often spoon-fed from sophiscates. (For example, up until the moment it spectacularly collapsed, among academics and career diplomats was that, all things considered, the Soviet Union wasn’t really wasn’t that much different from the United States and since the USSR wasn’t going anywhere we should just learn to accomodate it.)

Though I doubt Burns intended it, at least Part One of his “Prohibition” film offers a cautionary — and even libertarian — argument about the ever-present danger of a government that’s big enough to tell you how to live your life because — under the wrong circumstances — it can.


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