This week my family and I took a camping trip in the southern part of the state, near Mammoth Cave National Park. While trying to purchase beer to swill on an oppressively hot, muggy day, we were confronted with one of the most curious institutions to survive from the early 20th century in our state.
While some local governments still have (or did have, until recently) Jim Crow laws on the books, and while in light of this fact I probably shouldn’t be surprised, I was annoyed to learn that “dry county” legislation was in effect that forbade the sale of alcohol throughout the surrounding area (although not in restaurants, technically making the county “moist”).
After driving 30 miles for a six pack that I enjoyed responsibly, I did some research – sure as I was that some farsighted principle of governance was preventing me from conveniently consuming alcohol and that I could discover what it was. Perhaps alcoholism had reached levels that demanded a (misguided) legislative intervention? As it turns out they had, albeit in 1933. Dry counties, of which there are several in Kentucky, were able to opt out of the 1933 repeal of Prohibition on a local level; meaning that Prohibition has never effectively ended in large parts of the South. Apparently most of the parties responsible for this were Protestant denominations that considered drinking a sin, some of which maintain this belief. Ironically, the available research reflects that drunk driving incidents are higher in dry counties, which force prospective imbibers to drive into the next county to score.
What surprised me about all this was the realization that an utterly antique piece of legislation, authored to restrict the deleterious conduct of a bygone era, was the reason I couldn’t get beer at Wal-mart. While some pieces of legislation seem to enshrine the basic, perennial needs of an orderly society and are therefore indefinitely relevant, I can’t help but notice that many more seem hopelessly enmeshed in a view of society and politics that is transitory.
To make matters worse, prohibition in any form violates – or rather stands in awe – of the economic laws that underwrite our day to day lives. Prohibition did nothing but empower a generation of thugs by granting criminals a de facto monopoly over a well established product, and the most dry county laws did here was inconvenience me, a tourist eager to shell money into the local economy. In actuality, prohibition laws create an action-dilemma in which smugglers, who have a heavy incentive to provide products in high demand, have no ability to enforce their property rights except with violence.
As we can see now with the hindsight of history, any system of law that creates extra-legal domains of economic activity will suffer violence as the arbitration of “property disputes” is outsourced to individuals with poor impulse control. This argument pertains in our case to illegal drugs but it used to be true of alcohol too, and beyond the aforementioned argument I can find no practical reason why any county in Kentucky would deny itself the substantial tax revenue that could come with “wet” status. It’s obvious that my quest for beer at local stores is repeated endlessly by campers flocking to the park, as evidenced by the tired expression of a cashier explaining to me her county’s “dry” status.
So why do these laws continue to be enforced in the 21st century, in spite of both our medical understanding of alcoholism and our political education in the ineffectualness of prohibition laws? The only common thread I could find was the enduring influence of hardline Protestant denominations on local politics in the South – to the point that a map of dry counties in the United States is practically a map of the Bible Belt.
If this theory is true, it means that we are stuck with this futile and bizarre legislation indefinitely, as religious organizations seem to be one of the only consistently effective actors in local politics throughout the South. If religious mandates against “vice” are still strong enough to keep government hands off thousands in tax revenue, any interested parties are unlikely to affect change; and once again it seems that parts of Kentucky, along with a large part of the South, will remain indefinitely backward in their attitude towards prohibition.