The New Deal and Prohibition

Email Print



article originally appeared in the
American Mercury in March 1936. An MP3 audio file of this
article, read by Donna Orlando, is available
for download

I believe
that when the historian looks back on the last 20 years of American
life, the thing that will puzzle him most is the amount of self-inflicted
punishment that Americans seem able to stand. They take it squarely
on the chin at the slightest provocation and do not even wait
for the count before they are back for more.

True, they
have always been good at it. For instance, once on a time they
were comparatively a free people, regulating a large portion of
their lives to suit themselves. They had a great deal of freedom
as compared with other peoples of the world.

But apparently
they could not rest until they threw their freedom away. They
made a present of it to their own politicians, who have made them
sweat for their gullibility ever since. They put their liberties
in the hands of a praetorian guard made up exactly on the old
Roman model, and not only never got them back, but as long as
that praetorian guard of professional politicians lives and thrives
– which will be quite a while if its numbers keep on increasing
at the present rate – they never will.

But though
Americans have always known how to make the old-time Flagellants
look like amateurs at the business of scourging themselves, it
is only in the last 20 years that they have really shown what
they can do. The plagues of Egypt, the flies, frogs, hail, locusts,
murrain, boils, and blains are as nothing by comparison with the
curses they have brought down on themselves in that time, all
of their own free will and accord. They diddled themselves into
a war to make the world safe for democracy – and look at
democracy now!

They took
on the war debts and financed the "reconstruction" of
Europe – and now they are holding the bag. They fell for
the "new economics" of blessed memory and took a handsome
fling at jazz-and-paper in the 1920s. They went in strong for
Prohibition; and then, even before they came out from under that
nightmare, they threw themselves body and soul into the fantastic
imbecilities of the New Deal.

What a spectacle!
There is no use, none in the world, of pretending that the praetorian
guard dragooned, cajoled, or humbugged the people of this country
into taking up with all this appalling nonsense, and at the same
time pretending that the country is a republic in which the people
are sovereign. You cannot have it both ways. If the professional
politicians, who are known of all men to be pliant mountebanks
when they are not time-serving scoundrels, and are usually both
– if these have power to herd the people headlong into such
bizarre rascalities and follies against their will and judgment,
then the country is not a republic but an oligarchy built on an
imperial model, and its people are not citizens, but subjects.

If, on the
other hand, it is a republic and the people are sovereign, then
the misfeasances of the professional politicians run straight
back to the people who elected them. When Golden
Rule Jones
was mayor of Toledo, a man wrote him for help,
saying that whisky had been his ruin. Jones answered his letter,
saying, "I do not believe whisky has been your ruin. I believe
it was the whisky that you drank."

The reader
may take his choice between these alternatives. No matter which
of the two is right, the fact remains that the individual citizen,
or subject, has lost the best that was in him. Whether he surrendered
it or whether he let it be confiscated is not what I am so much
concerned with at the moment – although the question is important
enough and ought to be ventilated – as I am with the fact
that it is gone.

Not only
his liberty is gone but something much more valuable: his belief
in liberty and his love of it, his power of quick and effective
resentment against any tampering with the principle of liberty
by anybody. This is as much as to say that his self-respect, dignity,
his sense of what is due to him as a human being, has gone, and
that is exactly what I mean to say. It has gone into the keeping
of persons most notoriously unworthy of such a trust, or of any
trust; persons capable of deliberately conniving – and who
do connive – at the temporary ruin of their country for political

I say this
with respect to no particular party or faction, for however many
nominally there may be of these, there are never actually more
than two. As Mr. Jefferson said,

The nest
of office being too small for them all to cuddle into at once,
the contest is eternal which shall crowd the other out. For
this purpose they are divided into two parties, the Ins and
the Outs.

In the last
conversation I had with the late Brand
, a few months before his death, we spoke of the remarkably
rapid dwindling of the sense of self-respect in America, and he
asked me if I remembered how thoroughly the country was worked
up by a little incident that took place only 25 years before.
I remembered it well, because we had happened to be together at
the time, and we had commented on the wholesome general resentment
that the outrage provoked.

State prohibition
was in force then, and somewhere down south a posse of state officials
boarded a train and slashed open the suitcase of a through passenger
who had stood on his rights and refused to unlock it. That incident
went the length and breadth of the land, and was talked about
in good plain language, not by a few doctrinaires, but by Tom,
Dick, and Harry on the streets.

Yet, as Mr.
Whitlock said, in the America of 25 years later, such a thing
would not even be news, and nowhere would there be a breath of
indignation against it. Mr. Whitlock died, as an honorable man
would wish to do, before he could see the upshot of most of the
policies that the people of Prohibitionist and post-Prohibitionist
America have inflicted on themselves in the name of good government.
Many of us, indeed, appear or pretend not to see it even now.

I think,
for instance, that no one has adequately remarked the ease and
naturalness of the transition from Prohibition to the New Deal.
Someone may have done it, but if so it has escaped me. There is
a complete parallel between them. They are alike in their inception.
They are alike in their professed intention. As for their fundamental
principle, they are so far alike that the one is a mere expansion
of the other. They are alike in respect of the quality of the
people who support them, alike in respect of the kind of apologists
they attract to their service, and, finally, they are alike in
their effect upon the spirit and character of the nation.

Alike in
their origin, both were brought about by a coup d’état,
the work of a determined minority at a time when the country was
writhing in one of its recurrent spasms of discreditable and senseless
funk – or, I should rather say, when it had passed beyond
its norm of imbecile apathy and gone into the stage of vociferous
idiocy. Not long ago I had a letter from a French friend who remarked
that "quand les Américains se mettent à
être nerveux, ils dépassent tout commentaire,"[1]
which is indeed true, so I imagine that what I have just said
is perhaps the best one can do by way of describing the country’s
state of mind.

came when we were "making a business of being nervous"
about the great cause of righteousness that we were defending
against the furious Goth and fiery Hun. The New Deal came when
we were making a business of being nervous about the depression;
that is, nervous about having to pay collectively the due and
just penalty of our collective ignorance, carelessness, and culpable

and the New Deal are alike in their professed intention, if one
may put it so, to "do us for our own good." Both assumed
the guise of disinterested benevolence towards the body politic.
In the one case we were adjudged incapable of setting up an adequate
social defense against the seductions of vicious rum-sellers;
in the other, of defending ourselves against injuries wrought
by malefactors of great wealth; therefore the State would obligingly
come forward and take the job off our hands.

In the case
of Prohibition we can now see what those professions amounted
to, and we are beginning to see what they amount to in the case
of the New Deal; and in either case we see nothing but what we
might have seen at the outset – and what some of us did see
– by a brief glance at the kind of people engaged in promoting
both these nostrums, and a briefer glance at their record. We
see now that the promotion of Prohibition was purely professional,
and there is nothing to prevent our seeing that so was the promotion
of the New Deal.

In 1932,
the local politicians and the political hangers-on who together
make up the "machine" – and of whom there are more
in America than there were lice in Egypt in Moses’s day –
saw a great starving time ahead of them, and when the New Deal
was broached, they fell upon it with yells of joy, as one who
comes upon an oasis of date palms in a trackless desert. Their
dearth was miraculously turned into plenty. Faced with a dead
stoppage of their machine from lack of money to keep it going,
they suddenly found themselves with more money in their hands
than they had ever imagined there was in the world.

and the New Deal are alike in their fundamental principle, which
is the principle of coercion. Prohibition proposed to make the
nation sober by force majeure, and incidentally to charge
a thundering brokerage for doing the job. It said to us, "This
is all for your own good, and you ought to fall in line cheerfully,
but if you do not fall in, we will make you."

The New Deal
proposes a redistribution of wealth and is charging a brokerage
that makes the Janissaries
of the Anti-Saloon
look like pickpockets at a county fair. The national
headquarters of the New Deal has a slush fund of something over
$4 billion to blow in between now and next November [1937], and
about 700,000 devoted heelers on the job of seeing that it is
spent where it will bring the best results. All this, we are told,
is for our own good, and we ought to appreciate it, but whether
we appreciate it or not, we must take it.

The two enterprises
are alike also in respect of the quality of the people who support
it. There are some statistics available on this. About four years
ago – in November 1931, to be exact – Mr. Henry L. Mencken
published in this magazine the results of an elaborate statistical
study that he had been making, in collaboration with Mr. Charles
Angoff, in order to determine the relative cultural standing of
the 48 states. He tabulated his findings in the form of a list
of the states, arranged in the order of their approach to civilization,
and he has stated publicly that his table has never been successfully

In 1932 Mr.
Mencken compared his table with the returns of the Literary
Digest’s poll on Prohibition, and found that they fitted precisely.
Nearly all the states that turned in heavy majorities against
Prohibition stood high on his table, and nearly all that supported
it stood low. In the Baltimore Evening Sun of January 13,
1936, he made a similar comparison with the Digest’s poll
on the New Deal, and got a similar result. The more nearly civilized
states are against it, and the more uncivilized states are for
it. He says,

In the
five most civilized of American states, according to the Angoff-Mencken
table, the percentage of voters voting for the New Deal is but
32.32; in the five least civilized states it is 67.68, or more
than double… Of the states giving the New Deal less than 30%
of their votes (seven in number) all are among the first twenty-two;
of those giving it more than 70% (two in number) both are among
the last three. Of those giving it less than 35% (thirteen in
number) all are among the first twenty-eight; of those giving
it more than 65% (four in number) all are clumped together at
the bottom. Finally, of those giving it less than 40% (twenty-two
in number) all are among the first thirty-three; and of those
giving it more than 60% (eight in number) all are among the
last eleven.

From this
it may be seen that, precisely like Prohibition, the New Deal,
as Mr. Mencken concludes,

makes its
most powerful appeal, not to the intelligent and enlightened
moiety of the American people, but to the ignorant and credulous.
It is, in truth, demagogy pure and simple, quackery undiluted.
… The states that show a majority for it, including the anomalous
Utah, are exactly the states that inflicted the Eighteenth Amendment
on us, and most of them are still dry. Also they are the states
whose people still believe by large majorities that William
Jennings Bryan was a profounder scientist than Darwin, that
any man who pays his debts is an enemy to society, and that
a horsehair put into a bottle of water will turn into a snake.

As for its
moral effect upon the nation, the New Deal simply carries on Prohibition’s
work of making corruption and hypocrisy respectable. Both enterprises
are bureaucratic, both are coercive, and, as Mr. Jefferson said,
the moral effect of coercion is "to make one-half the world
fools, and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error
all over the earth."

And what
has Prohibition had to show by way of offset? Simply nothing.
What has the New Deal to show, so far? Can anybody point to a
single one of its policies that has really worked? I know of none.
No recovery in business is due to it. It has as many unemployed
on its hands as it ever had and as many derelicts. Its agricultural
policy is said to have worked, but, as the Supreme Court observed,
that simply amounted to the expropriation of money from one group
for the benefit of another. In other words, it amounted to larceny,
and official larceny always works. The unofficial practitioners
of that art who are now in Sing Sing were simply at a disadvantage.

and the New Deal, in short, breed straight back to the incredible
appetite of the American people for self-inflicted punishment.
One wonders how long they can take it and how hard; and above
all, one wonders, when the New Deal has gone the way of Prohibition,
what more dismal and depraving form of self-torture they will
turn to next.


"When Americans start getting nervous, they are beyond


Jay Nock (1870–1945) was an influential American libertarian
author, educational theorist, and social critic. Murray Rothbard
was deeply influenced by him, and so was that whole generation of
free-market thinkers. See Nock’s The
State of the Union

Best of Albert Jay Nock

Email Print