Unenforceable Laws Against Pleasure

The 100th anniversary of Prohibition is a reminder of how hard it is to regulate consumption and display

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This month we mark the centennial of the ratification of the Constitution’s 18th Amendment, better known as Prohibition. But the temperance movement was active for over a half-century before winning its great prize. As the novelist Anthony Trollope discovered to his regret while touring North America in 1861-2, Maine had been dry for a decade. The convivial Englishman condemned the ban: “This law, like all sumptuary laws, must fail,” he wrote.

Sumptuary laws had largely fallen into disuse by the 19th century, but they were once a near-universal tool, used in the East and West alike to control economies and preserve social hierarchies. A sumptuary law is a rule that regulates consumption in its broadest sense, from what a person may eat and drink to what they may own, wear or display. The oldest known example, the Locrian Law Code devised by the seventh century B.C. Greek law giver Zaleucus, banned all citizens of Locri (except prostitutes) from ostentatious displays of gold jewelry.

Sumptuary laws were often political weapons disguised as moral pieties, aimed at less powerful groups, particularly women. In 215 B.C., at the height of the Second Punic War, the Roman Senate passed the Lex Oppia, which (among other restrictions) banned women from owning more than a half ounce of gold. Ostensibly a wartime austerity measure, 20 years later the law appeared so ridiculous as to be unenforceable. But during debate on its repeal in 195 B.C., Cato the Elder, its strongest defender, inadvertently revealed the Lex Oppia’s true purpose: “What [these women] want is complete freedom…. Once they have achieved equality, they will be your masters.”

Cato’s message about preserving social hierarchy echoed down the centuries. As trade and economic stability returned to Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), so did the use of sumptuary laws to keep the new merchant elites in their place. By the 16th century, sumptuary laws in Europe had extended from clothing to almost every aspect of daily life. The more they were circumvented, the more specific such laws became. An edict issued by King Henry VIII of England in 1517, for example, dictated the maximum number of dishes allowed at a meal: nine for a cardinal, seven for the aristocracy and three for the gentry.

The rise of modern capitalism ultimately made sumptuary laws obsolete. Trade turned once-scarce luxuries into mass commodities that simply couldn’t be controlled. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) confirmed what had been obvious for over a century: Consumption and liberty go hand in hand. “It is the highest impertinence,” he wrote, “to pretend to watch over the economy of private people…either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries.”

Smith’s pragmatic view was echoed by President William Howard Taft. He opposed Prohibition on the grounds that it was coercive rather than consensual, arguing that “experience has shown that a law of this kind, sumptuary in its character, can only be properly enforced in districts in which a majority of the people favor the law.” Mass immigration in early 20th-century America had changed many cities into ethnic melting-pots. Taft recognized Prohibition as an attempt by nativists to impose cultural uniformity on immigrant communities whose attitudes toward alcohol were more permissive. But his warning was ignored, and the disastrous course of Prohibition was set.

The Sunday Times: The American dream keeps rolling in a camembert chuck wagon

Photo: Daryn Bartlett

Photo: Daryn Bartlett

Call us a nation of fatties, lard-lovers and super-sized seat-hoggers. But it’s hard to stay lean when the greatest food revolution since the invention of the sandwich is parked enticingly on every street corner.

So excuse me while I hoof it over to the Korilla BBQ food truck to grab my lunchtime Porkinator: a taco filled with pulled pork, bacon, kimchi slaw, shredded cheese and barbecue sauce. Last week we had the Taim Mobile in the neighbourhood offering a kind of Middle-Med falafel fusion. The week before it had been Palenque, a Colombian-themed food truck that had sent out its siren call of beef-stuffed arepas. For us New Yorkers it’s the American dream on a paper plate.

Millions of people eat from food carts and trucks every day. Behind the beef short rib, marmalade-glazed onion and camembert grilled flatbread that I had last Thursday lies one of the key reasons why this country is still a better economic bet than Europe. In a word (well, three words actually): market-driven innovation.

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The Sunday Times: Stay silent and soon Amazon will be telling the world what it can read

Photo: Glen Noble

Photo: Glen Noble

One of the greatest monopolies in history was the medieval Catholic Church. Its religious and temporal power was absolute until confronted by an even more potent rival: the printed book. Today, print is once more at the centre of a cultural revolution. Only this time it is not the challenger to a global monopoly but its most successful weapon.

Amazon, founded and controlled by Jeff Bezos, used the humble book to leverage itself into becoming the world’s largest online retailer. It took 20 years for Amazon to emerge as a monopolistic power. Last week, by creating an effective blacklist of authors for use as a bargaining tool against Hachette Book Group, the company showed us how far it would go in its abuse of that power.

The public has only recently become aware of the long shadow war between Amazon and the publishing industry. In February Amazon began quietly “disappearing” certain authors in an attempt to force Hachette into giving larger discounts on its books.

What the public does not know is that the real fight is about kickbacks. How can Amazon make up for the fact that it sells almost all its books at a loss?

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