PURSER: Raising a glass to the Constitution

Patchwork alcohol regulation reflects American diversity

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Created to withstand the test of time, the U.S. Constitution shines brilliantly today as a beacon for human rights and for committing to parchment the government’s mandate to ensure “the blessings of liberty” for all U.S. citizens.

Yet one amendment, the 18th, stands apart as an amendment specifically designed to limit, not advance, individual freedoms. Enacted in 1919, the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol within the U.S. Thus began the era of Prohibition, which remained the law of the land for 13 long years before it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

These events come to mind as HBO’s popular Prohibition-era series “Boardwalk Empire” has launched its second season and renowned director Ken Burns’ three-part television documentary “Prohibition” premiered on PBS last week. Clearly, Americans remain interested in this fascinating, yet dark, chapter in our nation’s history. Mr. Burns powerfully documents the unintended consequences of Prohibition while also addressing the proper role of government and the need for civil discourse in public-policy debates - issues as relevant today as ever.

Prior to Prohibition, alcohol abuse was widespread. However, instead of dealing with the issue through appropriate regulation, a wide variety of political interests aligned and a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach was adopted - banning alcohol outright. The effort drove drinking underground, created celebrity gangsters and made a mockery of our justice system. The well-heeled continued to imbibe, while working-class men and women often were targeted for violating the Volstead Act and jailed for drinking.

At one end of the spectrum, excessive and unconstrained consumption before Prohibition led to the backlash. The result was that the Constitution was used not to balance freedom with responsibility but to criminalize a behavior that previously had been legal. Nonetheless, what happened after Prohibition’s repeal is that our government got it right and restored the Constitution to being a consistently positive force.

Following ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, the easiest thing for elected politicians to do would have been simply to walk away from their duty to promote the general welfare and let the nation slip back to a pre-Prohibition, anything-goes arrangement. Instead, because alcohol is different, national leaders took the harder path, learned from the mistake of Prohibition and created a system of safeguards within a competitive market that delicately balances vastly competing interests.

The 21st Amendment essentially hit the reset button, but this time it eschewed the strongly federalized role for alcohol policy and made it clear that individual states have the right to decide what’s best for them. The result today is a locally accountable and dynamic system that offers widespread access for adults, generates interbrand competition, enacts controls that are reflective of citizens’ attitudes about alcohol and provides revenue through taxation. Local oversight is key, as communities are impacted when alcohol is consumed to the extreme or by underage youth. Balancing the access that consumers want with the safeguards that common sense requires is no easy feat. While not perfect, the system works well today.

In the beer industry, America’s distributors deliver more than 13,000 diverse labels by producers large and small to restaurants, bars and retailers coast to coast. At the same time, states apply differing controls that reflect the respective desires of their residents. States also enact and enforce tough drunken-driving laws, and they monitor producers, distributors and retailers to ensure that those involved with the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol are held to a higher standard of responsibility.

All of us, the alcohol industry, government and individuals, play an important part in ensuring that alcohol plays an appropriate role in society. There are myriad views and, yes, competing interests, surrounding this socially sensitive product. And, yet, if we learn anything from the experience of Prohibition, it’s that civil discourse can help us find common ground and lead to a reasoned, balanced approach in which society is the ultimate beneficiary.

The U.S. Constitution is among the very oldest written constitutions still in use anywhere in the world. This document is a true testament to our uniquely American system of individual and collective freedoms. For that, we can all raise a glass to celebrate - legally.

Craig A. Purser is CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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