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Will the Conscientious Objectors Save Us From COVID Prohibition?

Photograph of Prohibition Agents Destroying a Bar. (Public domain image via Picryl.)

There’s a revolt brewing in the food and booze industries against our increasingly hypocritical and tyrannical COVID lockdowns.

Alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early ’30s was infamous for giving rise to organized crime. Previously, mobsters had been limited to vices enjoyed by relatively few people, such as gambling and prostitution. With the 18th Amendment banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States, suddenly there was a nearly universal vice that only organized crime could supply.

The illicit money came in like never before, giving rise to a glitzy-seeming crime culture that we’re still dealing with nearly 90 years after Prohibition was repealed.

Less appreciated is what Prohibition destroyed, or nearly so: Fine American dining, winemaking, and what we’d now call the craft beer industry.

American winemakers, who were starting to get the hang of making quality wines, often turned to producing low-quality sacramental wines exempted under the Volstead Act. Beer brewers, who before Prohibition could be just as local and funky as any trendy microbrewer today, were put out of business. And as Daniel Okrent documented in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the modern dinner party was invented in response to Prohibition. Why go out with your friends to a restaurant where there probably wasn’t any booze, when you could entertain them at home with all the illicit hooch anyone could ever want?

By the time the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. The demand and the capital to relaunch those devastated industries simply didn’t exist. When the country finally returned to normalcy after World War II, the surge in demand for food and booze was so monumental that it led to one of those undesirable and unintended consequences: Mass chains and mass production.

Well-financed big brewers who had survived Prohibition flooded the market with lower-cost/high-volume beers of little distinction. Same thing for winemakers. Postwar wealth and mobility led to the rise of chain restaurants that might not have had a chance had Prohibition not crippled American cuisine.

Distinctly American fine dining and winemaking wouldn’t really begin to recover until the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter’s signature on H.R. 1337 gave new life to craft brewing:

Our 39th President, Mr. James Carter, is the true homebrew hero; he and a lesser known man by the name of Alan Cranston, a veteran democratic senator from California. How so, you ask? Well, on October 14, 1978, Jimmy Carter signed the bill H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment sponsored by Alan Cranston. That amendment created an exemption from taxation of beer brewed at home for personal or family use. Essentially, it lifted regulations imposed by Prohibition laws over 50 years previous.

Craft beer had been outlawed under Prohibition, but just because the 18th Amendment had been repealed didn’t mean all the associated laws and regulations went with it into the ether. As a result, it wasn’t until the 1980s that American brewers finally got a chance to come back into their own.

Signing H.R. 1337 into law proved to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal administration.

Today, restaurants, brewers, and even winemakers are under greater threat than at any time since the end of Prohibition.

And increasingly their attitude is: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

The revolt is fully underway here in Colorado, where Governor Jared Polis’s lockdown orders have been more arbitrary and capricious than most any state not named “California.”

In Loveland, Colo., Grimm Brothers Brewhouse CFO Morgen Harrington penned an op-ed with Betta Gumbo’s Clay Caldwell defending their decision to defy the latest closure orders.

Just two days before Thanksgiving and four days before Small Business Saturday, small businesses were told to close our doors. We were given no deadline, and there seemed to be no real plan from politicians for reprieve.

The new restrictions from the Larimer County Health Department unfairly single out small businesses. All a person has to do is walk into a big box store to know this is true; they were stuffed with people last week for Thanksgiving shopping and Black Friday.

This is why nearly 100 small business owners signed a pact to defy the new government restrictions. We are staying open.

We are staying open because if we don’t, thousands of workers will lose their jobs and businesses will be forced to shut their doors for good.

Left unsaid: They’re operating legal businesses that the government has no right to order closed without recompense.

In the Denver exurb of Parker, Tailgate Tavern and Grill owner John Jordan accused county officials of “overreach” for banning indoor dining. He told Colorado Community Media’s Nick Puckett, “For them to just shut us down without shutting down big-box stores — they’ve been doing this now for nine months, hurting small business.” He continued, “They’re hurting small business. They’re letting the corporations and the big guys stay open with no restrictions.”

Much like what happened during Prohibition: “Good intentions” always seemed to hurt local small business owners and their employees, while well-connected major players made out just fine.

If you missed Monday’s Insanity Wrap, this social media video posted by a Los Angeles restauranteur will give you an idea of just how arbitrary the shutdown orders are.

If you have the mayor’s (or governor’s) ear, you can do almost anything you could do pre-COVID. Everyone else is getting smothered to death like a Prohibition-era brewpub — but with less justification. Prohibition was a terrible idea, but it was an amendment to the Constitution. Today’s capricious shutdowns are done under no such authority.

Mostly, it seems to be the hamfisted hypocrisy that’s really getting to people.

Here’s another Los Angeles chef, Andrew Gruel, explaining why he’ll keep his two restaurants open despite the renewed ban on indoor dining.

I’d wager that there are very few chefs, restaurant owners, or brewmasters who enjoy studying constitutional issues or the history of Prohibition in their copious (ahem) free time. But everyone — from your favorite server who just got laid off again to the famous TV chef with a couple of L.A. eateries under his belt — knows and understands rank hypocrisy when it’s shoved in their faces.

It’s bad enough when the government arbitrarily makes questionable decisions that affect someone’s pocketbook. But it’s even worse when government officials do so as favors to their friends, and while ignoring the rules they make others live by — or even drives them into bankruptcy.

California Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow was quoted in a recent Washington Times article: “One of my ‘rule ones’ was don’t try to fool the voters. If they think an elected official is being a hypocrite and trying to fool them or game them, that oftentimes can be a [political] death knell.”

Hypocritical officialdom is one of those issues that, more easily than most, cuts across partisan lines. People might promote this or that policy or prefer one candidate over another — but nobody likes a hypocrite.

The charge against hypocrites like Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti is being led by the entrepreneurs and employees of popular businesses most visibly affected by — and most visibly abused by — state and local governments.

And so it might prove that the same industries that were squashed by alcohol prohibition a century ago, might be the very industries that save us all from our very postmodern COVID prohibition.

Also for our VIPs: Norwegians Just Invited Big Brother Into Their Homes. Will Americans Do the Same?