How the Civil Service Helped End Prohibition

When I’m not blogging about liquor law, I work a civil service job. I took an exam to prove I was hired for my professional skills and not as a favor to a relative, and in return I am protected from the whims of whatever politicians are in office. Historically that exam and that protection were totally necessary if you wanted honest and capable government. They were a response to decades of patronage politics, where government jobs went to people who were loyal party men, not skilled in public administration. Civil Service first became a major political issue in the 1870s-1880s, and by the early 20th century most federal employees were hired through that system.

When Prohibition created thousands of new federal jobs, then, you might assume that those jobs would be civil service positions—but they weren’t. Advocates of Prohibition (especially leadership of the Anti-Saloon League [ASL], who held enormous sway over the issue) wanted only true believers in the Prohibition Bureau, and the whole point of civil service is that anyone who is qualified can get the job, regardless of politics. Political elites (many of whom were at best wary supporters of Prohibition) were eager to take advantage of all the new jobs they could distribute to their political patrons, and agreed to keep Prohibition agents out of the Civil Service system. The head of the ASL, Wayne Wheeler, basically ran the hiring process, but he had to choose between hiring those true believers and keeping politicians happy by letting them give the jobs away. Wheeler—always looking to increase his own standing in politics—mostly chose the latter. Self-interest won out over principle, and the system degenerated into corruption and incompetence.

Up to this point, supporters of civil service and other “good government” efforts had been pretty aligned with the Prohibitionists (they were both part of the broader Progressive movement). The Prohibition Bureau debacle changed that. It gave Civil Service supporters a shining example of why merit-based hiring was so important to government, and they campaigned hard against the ASL and its support for the patronage positions. They were rebuffed for a few years, but in 1927 Wheeler died and bad press about enforcement agents reached a fever pitch. Congress changed the law, and 3,500-odd Prohibition Bureau employees had to sit for a competency exam. Three quarters of them failed it.

Civil Service made the Bureau less corrupt and more competent, but agents still had an impossible job to do, and enforcement was still lacking. At the same time, a whole cadre of self-interested political elites had lost their Prohibition meal ticket, and with it went their support for the policy itself. It would be a few years (and one Great Depression) before Prohibition ended, but Civil Service knocked down a major institutional barrier to repeal.[i]

[i] The main source for this article is Ley, Aaron J. and Cornell W. Clayton. “Constitutional Choices: Political Parties, Groups, and Prohibition Politics in the United States.” The Journal of Policy History, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2018

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