Monday, August 08, 2011

Coin Prohibition: a Historical Parallel

Last evening (Sunday, August 7) the History Channel featured RUMRUNNERS, MOONSHINERS AND BOOTLEGGERS, a well-presented exposition of the immense difficulties faced by US authorities attempting to enforce national Prohibition during the period in which it was the law of the land (1919-1933).

Despite the efforts of filmmakers to portray federal agents such as Elliott Ness as noble heroes, the reality was that moonshiners and thugs like Al Capone had great success in corrupting law enforcement officers and evading the scrutiny of those who could not be corrupted. Less than ten per cent of illegal alcohol was ever intercepted, and law enforcement efforts ultimately proved to be nothing more than a nuisance to those involved in the illicit alcohol trade and illicit alcohol consumption.

I was struck by the parallels between Prohibition and efforts to restrict (and ultimately end) the international trade in ancient artifacts such as coins, and their possession by private collectors. In many ways it seems that this present day anticollecting effort is an eerily similar replay of what took place in the USA during the era of the Temperance Movement, which began in the mid-1800s and actually succeeded in prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages in a majority of US states before national Prohibition was enacted.

The same sort of moralizing critics appeared then, to castigate those involved in production and consumption of alcohol as immoral and sinful. Rallies of revivalist character presented the temperance movement to the public as an ideology that became almost a religion. There was good reason for this sincere zeal - certainly the behavioral and health issues caused by excessive alcohol consumption were of far greater social importance than those caused by illicit excavation and smuggling of artifacts. After their campaign to prohibit the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages succeeded, however, temperance ideologues were dismayed to discover that Prohibition turned out to be a monumental, disastrous failure. Even they could clearly see that very little good and a great deal of harm had been caused by their unrealistic campaign to legislate morality. In the end many of those who led the effort to impose Prohibition in 1919 supported the campaign to repeal it in 1933.

Should present-day activists ever succeed in enacting legislation restricting (and ultimately ending) the international trade in ancient artifacts such as coins, and their possession by private collectors, there is no doubt in my mind that such anticollecting laws would be even more impossible to enforce than the Volstead Amendment. Coins are much smaller that containers holding equivalent values of alcoholic beverages. They can readily be concealed in what appear to be ordinary letters sent through the international postal system without declaration of contents. It would not be feasible to intercept any significant fraction of coins illicitly mailed, and there would be other ways to bring them across the porous borders of nations such as the United States. If the US cannot even stop illegal immigration, how can anyone imagine that it would be possible to prevent illicit entry of small objects such as coins?

I doubt however that the obviously inevitable failure of "coin Prohibition" would be similarly recognized and responsibly admitted to by the moralists presently campaigning for its enactment. They are not motivated by the sincere social concerns of the Temperance Movement, but by an ideology founded upon the notions that archaeology is the most important human activity and that State Socialist principles should apply to possession of ancient artifacts, which must be kept in institutional and public custody.

These principles are sincerely held by anticollecting activists, but I believe they would be much less likely to be accepted by the public than the principles of the Temperance Movement. Given the extreme ease with which coins can be safely concealed and distributed compared to containers of alcoholic beverages - and the prospect of far less public support for "coin Prohibition" - how can anyone imagine that this would have any chance of success?

There would however be significant negative effects from criminalizing the private possession and distribution of ancient coins, just as there were negative effects from criminalizing the private possession and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Collectors would be faced with the dilemma of having to cease their collecting activities (and perhaps even surrender their collections) or become criminals, while law-abiding dealers such as myself would face a similar dilemma. I personally would not even consider breaking the law, but others in different circumstances might find that a more difficult decision. During Prohibition, many of those involved in the previously licit distilling and liquor distribution industries were put out of work under economic circumstances such that alternative employment was not available. In many cases they became moonshiners or rumrunners, not because they were criminals by inclination, but because the alternative was starvation for themselves and their families.

Those who did not have an opportunity to watch this show can acquire it as a DVD recording as I have myself done, by ordering it from the A&E website. It is "mandatory watching" for everyone on every side of the present controversy over collecting ancient coins. I especially commend it to those advocating anticollecting views in the hope that they may come to realize how far divorced their expectations are, from what would actually occur if they got what they presently think they want.

A link to the A&E website page where this DVD can be ordered is given below, along with the text of its description of the DVD.


Veterans from both sides of the ''Rum Wars'' share Prohibition tales and reflect on the legacy of the Roaring Twenties.
They raced through the back roads and sailed the high seas for a decade, delivering a precious liquid cargo to a nation whose thirst could not be quenched by legislation. From high-toned clubs and hidden speakeasies to backwoods shacks, Prohibition did little to stop America's consumption of liquor--it just diverted the flow to different channels.

RUMRUNNERS, MOONSHINERS AND BOOTLEGGERS revisits the rough-and-tumble days of Prohibition for a candid, inside look at the legacy of this tumultuous time. Former Rumrunners talk of their run-ins with the Coast Guard, and we'll see how NASCAR owes its existence to the failed attempt to dry out the nation. Authors like Philip P. Mason (Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties) and Gary Regan (The Book of Bourbon) provide a historical perspective, while retired agents and prosecutors reflect on their difficult, dangerous and ultimately futile efforts to enforce a law that America clearly did not support.
Filled with extraordinary tales, rarely-seen footage and a host of captivating photos, RUMRUNNERS, MOONSHINERS AND BOOTLEGGERS is an unforgettable portrait of one of the most compelling eras in our history.



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