December 5th was the 79th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment and the repeal of Prohibition.  Hailed by lovers of personal liberty and advocates of small government, Repeal Day is celebrated as a victory of the individual over the encroaching impulses of big government and described as vindication of the notion that the attempt to legislate morality is a fool’s errand. While it is certainly evidence of the former, the political lessons of repeal speak more to an appreciation for the conditions of human flourishing than to the inadvisability of attempting to restrain vice through law.

The tormented, but woefully misguided, souls in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who brought about the Volstead Act were convinced that alcohol was the root of innumerable social pathologies—family decay in the form of poverty and spousal abuse and neglect foremost among them. What’s more, they were convinced that the law was the best tool to retard such vices that were afflicting the body politic. One can only imagine the chagrin of the architects of the moral crusade that, as Menken observed, Prohibition ushered in an era in which lawlessness was celebrated—so much so that the images of transgression, flappers sipping martinis from birdbath glasses, remain iconic depictions of freedom and frivolity to this day.

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