Two Complaints About Ken Burns' "Prohibition"

I found Ken Burns' 3-part documentary Prohibition, which aired last week on PBS, to be very informative. Others can speak on the obvious connection between the futility of Alcohol Prohibition and today's War on Drugs, so I won't repeat that here.

Instead, I'll provide two criticisms that may reveal telling insights into Burns's ideological biases or gaps in his knowledge of history.

First, Prohibition didn't adequately explain why, exactly, a Constitutional Amendment was required for Congress to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. What IS said is that the Constitution was revered by Americans not just as a plan for the federal government, but also as an expression of American values. Alcohol Prohibition, it is explained, would be enshrined in the Constitution forever, since up to that time no Amendment had ever been repealed. Prohibition would then become entrenched in the hearts and minds of the American people.

There may be a lot of truth here, but it's not the whole truth.

In the 1910's, the Supreme Court and Congress understood that the Constitution authorized few and defined powers for the federal government. Congress certainly went beyond the the Constitution's limits from time to time, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Most people understood that Congress didn't have the authority to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Perhaps Congress could regulate interstate sales and transport of alcohol, but it had no authority to prohibit production or retail sales.

It wasn't until the 1930's and the threat of FDR's "court-packing" scheme that the Supreme Court took a hands-off view toward federal intrusions on economic freedom. In the late 1910's the high court would have ruled that a law like the Volstead Act was unconstitutional. Therefore, a Constitutional Amendment was required before the federal government could ban alcohol nationwide.

I know not whether Burns is aware of this, or if he wants to "hide" the truth because, as a Big Government, "yellow dog" Democrat, he doesn't want to admit that the Constitution restricts the federal government to few and defined powers.

My second criticism is that Prohibition perpetuates the Hoover Myth. The myth is that Hoover was a "do-nothing President" who was so blinded by "free market" ideology that he thought the Depression would end on its own.

This is a minor critique of the series, since economic policy is not the subject of Prohibition. But it's warranted because the series did include a statement from Hoover suggesting that private charity would be sufficient to help those in poverty. Besides... 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hoover was from the Progressive wing of the Republican Party. He "stimulated" the economy by doubling federal spending. He also interfered in agriculture and labor markets (to artificially keep wages high), pursued protectionist trade and immigration policies, issued loans to banks and state governments, and imposed the largest peacetime tax hike in American history up to that point.

The idea that Hoover didn't try to "help" is dangerous. His interventionist policies failed and prolonged the Depression, whereas previous depressions, in which Presidents really did "nothing" (or something close to nothing), were short-lived. If anything is to be learned from the Hoover Administration, it is that DOING NOTHING about the economy is wiser than trying to "help" it.

These are minor complaints. I did enjoy and recommend Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary.