Beer-Soaked Politics

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Benjamin Franklin recounted in his Autobiography how he succeeded by avoiding beer while working at Watt’s Printing House in London.

At Watt’s, Franklin takes up the work of running the press. His fellow pressmen are a strong lot, given to heavy drinking. They called Franklin “Water American”, for he only drinks water; he also tries to convince them that beer does not build strength, as they assume. After a period of time, Franklin moves to the composing room, where he is asked to pay five shillings in order to drink with his fellow compositors. Franklin at first refuses to pay the money, and gives in only after much insistence. Even after he pays, Franklin is looked upon as an outsider for a long time. Gradually he becomes friends with some of the compositors and positively influences them. Several of them give up drinking beer and begin to eat simpler foods. Franklin’s hard work is once again noticed, and he is promoted to the work of dispatch, which pays better.

Franklin’s fellow employees would actually trust Franklin with the wages they usually consumed in beer, and in return Franklin showed them how much they could save by only drinking boiled water. Franklin also took a fee for essentially being a bank. Not only did productivity improve in the shop, but Franklin both grew richer and got promoted. Russ Roberts has an incredible interview with Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, in which Roberts subjects the usual moralistic canards about Prohibition to some spirited, yet enlightening humor. It can be a bit depressing, though. The history of drinking and the road to Prohibition is full of racism and chauvinism, and more than a jigger of venality. Again, where one earns one’s money says a lot about one’s politics.

For instance, Protestants favored Prohibition, because they opposed Irish and Eastern Europeans, who were overwhelmingly Catholic, moving to the cities. Women dreamed of a world without saloons, so that their husbands wouldn’t burn through their wages. In all Okrent presents good reasons to be skeptical about the best impulses behind social legislation.

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Filed under: Academia, Books, Business/Economy, Immigration, Podcasts, Politics, Religion, Social Science, USA Tagged: alcohol, daniel okrent, econ talk, organized crime, prohibition, russ roberts, taxation, women's suffrage

 

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