The Noble Experiment: Why Prohibition and the Volstead Act Failed
American president Herbert Hoover referred to Prohibition as "a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." The term "noble" relates to the objective of keeping families together and reducing or eliminating alcohol abuse. Many individuals seemed to agree with this opinion, and eventually, people referred to Prohibition as the “noble experiment.”
Prohibition, or the “noble experiment,” was a nationwide ban that prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol. It was enacted in the United States in January 1920 and lasted 13 years.
Prohibition would go on to ultimately fail for various reasons. Before its repeal in 1933, Prohibition significantly impacted American society. But what caused Prohibition and the Volstead Act to fail?
When Was Alcohol Illegal?
Nationwide Prohibition lasted 13 years, from 1920 until 1933. The U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1917. In 1919 the amendment was ratified by three-quarters of the nation's states required to make it constitutional.
What Caused Prohibition?
Prohibition was the attempt to prohibit the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The push for Prohibition started mainly as a religious movement in the early 19th century – the first state Prohibition law was approved in Maine in 1846, and the Prohibition Party was founded in 1869.
Social reformers who believed alcohol to be the source of poverty, industrial accidents, and tearing apart families helped the movement gather momentum in the 1880s and 1890s. Other supporters linked alcohol to urban immigrant ghettos, criminality, and political corruption.
Later, the war provided a huge boost for the temperance movement. With America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson put in place a temporary wartime Prohibition to conserve grain for producing food. This decision was also targeted toward brewers, most of who came of German descent.
The 18th Amendment, which outlawed the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors, was put forth for state ratification by Congress that same year. Despite a seven-year time limit set by Congress, the amendment was approved by the required three-quarters of U.S. states in only 11 months.
The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and it became effective one year later, when no less than 33 states had already passed their Prohibition laws.
In October 1919, Congress instituted the National Prohibition Act, which established regulations for the federal enforcement of Prohibition. Championed by Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the measure was more popularly known as the Volstead Act.
Why Did Prohibition Start?
There was a wide range of economic, political, and social reasons for Prohibition.
According to Cato Institute, the National prohibition of liquor was implemented to reduce crime and corruption, solve social issues, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.
However, the “noble experiment” results evidently demonstrate that it was a complete failure all around.
Why Did Prohibition Fail?
There were various unintended consequences of Prohibition. First, Prohibition's impacts on the economy were generally negative because of the thousands of jobs that were lost because of the closure of brewers, distilleries, and saloons.
Moreover, one of prohibition's most significant unintended consequences was on government tax revenues. Before Prohibition, several states greatly depended on excise taxes on the sale of alcohol for funding. At the national level, Prohibition cost the federal government a total of $11 billion in lost tax revenue while spending approximately $300 million to enforce it.
So, why did prohibition fail miserably? The Volstead Act enforced the 18th amendment's requirements and had a severe defect at its core. It banned the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol for drinking purposes, but it did not outlaw consumption, meaning people could still drink alcohol if they had access to it.
From those who produced and sold alcohol illegally, or "bootlegged," which grew rapidly and placed money directly into the pockets of "bootleggers", to those who made "moonshine" at home, which could sometimes be fatal when consumed, and to the "speakeasies," or illegal drinking establishments, that emerged throughout urban America, having access to alcohol was not a challenge.
Presidents, senators, congressmen, and police chiefs drank alcohol. Therefore, fortunes based on "bootlegging" were generated by disregarding criminals like Al Capone.
Clearly, organized crime and political corruption increased, and liquor prohibition created a difficult life for most drinkers. During Prohibition, the goal of turning away from spirits and toward beer was reversed because “bootleggers” could generate more money by smuggling spirits.
Prohibition ultimately failed because:
- At least 50% of the adult population wanted to continue drinking
- Policing of the Volstead Act was filled with contradictions, biases, and corruption
- There was a lack of detail for the ban on consumption, leading to confusion about the law
The law that was intended to promote temperance for over a decade instead promoted excess and intemperance. The strategy the United States came up with to deal with the issue of alcohol abuse actually made it worse.
Why Was Prohibition so Difficult to Enforce?
Enforcing Prohibition proved to be incredibly challenging. Throughout the 1920s, both federal and local governments struggled to enforce Hoover’s “noble experiment.”
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was initially assigned to enforce Prohibition; this responsibility was ultimately passed over to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prohibition.
By the end of the 1920s, public support for Prohibition was diminishing due to the increase in "bootlegging," the expansion of speakeasies, and the increase in gang and organized crime.
Since the national government lacked the resources and motivation to attempt to police every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America, bootlegging grew prevalent. In fact, there were somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone by 1925.
The law that was designed to prevent Americans from drinking liquor instead made many of them experts in producing it.
Public health suffered significantly because of the unregulated alcohol trade. The quality of alcohol on the black market decreased as the illegal alcohol trade grew more profitable. During Prohibition, contaminated alcohol caused 1,000 American deaths annually on average.
The Prohibition era changed everything. Although consumption rates eventually reached pre-1920 rates, alcohol was never again seen or consumed the same way.
Instead, now we require those who serve alcohol, such as bartenders, to take regulated alcohol training. Enroll today!