The 1920 Census

You learn something new every day.

Congress failed to reapportion following the 1920 Census. The failure was in part the result of a difference of opinion over the method of dividing political power. Throughout the 1920s, Congress debated which of two mathematical models for reapportionment--whose outcomes for distribution of House seats differed--would be used. In 1929, one mathematical method was selected for the reapportionment, but it was not applied until after the 1930 Census. Furthermore, the debate about apportionment methods was not over. In 1941, a different model was chosen called "the method of equal proportions." It is still in use today.

The failure to reapportion in 1920 was also a reflection of regional power dynamics. The results of the 1920 Census revealed a major and continuing shift in population from rural to urban areas, which meant that many representatives elected from rural districts resisted reapportionment. Also, the growing number of immigrants entering this country had some impact on population shifts. Delay followed delay as rural interests tried to come up with mechanisms that would reduce the impact of the population shift. Congressmen from rural areas that would lose seats to more urbanized areas simply blocked passage of reapportionment legislation for 9 years.

During the congressional debates on Pubic Law 71-13, which was enacted in 1929, language requiring that districts be composed of contiguous, compact territory and contain the same number of individuals was deleted. Therefore, the reapportionment law that finally passed in 1929 was silent on the subject of rules for how the states were to establish districts to elect their representatives. As a result, some states simply stopped redistricting, despite major changes in the internal distribution of their populations over time from rural to urban to suburban. A process of malapportionment--meaning establishment of districts containing unequal population sizes--continued unchecked for decades.

Adapted from United States General Accounting Office, May 1998, Decennial Census: Overview of Historical Census Issues, GAO/GGD-98-103. [pdf]

So what was the practical effect of all these shenanigans? Funny you should ask. In discussing Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition George Will has this to say.
By 1900, per capita consumption of alcohol was similar to today's, but mere temperance was insufficient for the likes of Carry Nation. She was "six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache," and she wanted Prohibition. It was produced by the sophisticated tenacity of the Anti-Saloon League, which at its peak was spending the equivalent of 50 million of today's dollars annually. Okrent calls it "the mightiest pressure group in the nation's history." It even prevented redistricting after the 1920 Census, the first census to reveal that America's urban -- and most wet -- population was a majority.
So that is how the census became delayed. And who was allied with the forces of prohibition and the dwindling rural population? You will never guess. Unless you like history as much as I do.
...President Woodrow Wilson's progressivism became a wartime justification for what Okrent calls ``the federal government's sudden leap into countless aspects of American life,'' including drink.

And so Prohibition came. Sort of. Briefly.

After the first few years, alcohol consumption dropped only 30 percent. Soon smugglers were outrunning the Coast Guard ships in advanced speedboats, and courts inundated by violations of Prohibition began to resort to plea bargains to speed ``enforcement'' of laws so unenforceable that Detroit became known as the City on a Still.

Prohibition agents cherished $1,800 jobs because of the bribes that came with them. Fiorello La Guardia taunted the government that it would need ``150,000 agents to watch the first 150,000.''

After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by ``social nullification'' -- a tide of alcohol -- and by the exertions of wealthy people like Pierre du Pont who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.

In the fight between law and appetite, bet on appetite. And: Americans then were, and let us hope still are, magnificently ungovernable by elected nuisances

Of course the Progressives had introduced drug prohibition in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (except that cocaine is not a narcotic - but never mind), but they had bigger game in mind. Now what is so interesting about today's political situation is that "conservatives" spout progressive dogma about Drug Prohibition and yet haven't a clue as to the antecedents of their position.

So it seems that at one time progressives wanted to run all of your life and conservatives thought that your life was your own business not the government's. Now we have a division of labor so to speak. The liberals stand for personal liberty and economic chains while the conservatives go with personal chains and economic liberty. For the most part. They all have their little fetishes that intrude on the opposition's territory though. That is what makes them interesting even if they are mostly unbearable.

Oh. Yeah. The George Will piece is called: Bet on appetite, not law, for Americans. If we look at the opiate/cocaine laws first enacted 96 years ago it appears that appetite is still winning. And the pot laws which are only 73 years old? There are two grow op stores in my town of 150,000. At first they were harassed. Now after ten or fifteen years they are solid citizens. Verrrrrrry interesting? No?

And you might want to read Eric's A Good First Step which shows one of the progressive's little fetishes. And a thermodynamic explanation of politics is also pertinent.

Cross Posted at Power and Control

posted by Simon on 07.09.10 at 02:35 AM


Glad you blogged about George Will's piece (which I loved).

One of the ironies is that it took a progressive (FDR) to get rid of this "progressive" law. Another liberal social experiment that failed...

We will never learn.

Eric Scheie   ·  July 10, 2010 10:48 AM

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