|This is what law enforcement was up to in 1922. Courtesy New York Daily News.|
It's also more political than his previous work, which is unavoidable because prohibition was all about politics. But Burns is cautious in his conclusion, harping on the idea that government can't legislate morality.
This just isn't true. The age of sexual consent was 10 in much of America in the 1800s; in Delaware, it was 7 as late as 1895. We've come a long way in deciding that it's both illegal and immoral to have sex with 10 year olds, and for all the talk of sexualized teenagers today, there doesn't seem to be a great backlash to revert to prior standards.
I could give other examples -- polygamy, gay marriage, drunk driving, even progressive income tax -- but the point is, governments can and do legislate morality all the time.
So at the end of the day, though Burns teaches us some interesting history, "Prohibition" is disappointing for failing to draw some more obvious parallels to today's society.
Example: How can we not look at revenuers busting up stills in the 1920s and not think of the war on drugs today? I see mobsters killing each other in Chicago and think of the current frightening state of affairs just south of our border (not to mention "Breaking Bad.") We could totally legislate morality by legalizing marijuana, which would remove the attraction of harder, still-illegal drugs.
Another example: Suppose there is a national political organization driven by people who care only about one issue. They gather enough influence to decide elections, and are able to defeat any politician in either party who opposes them. Soon they control the political agenda.