Though drunkenness is an enormous evil, it is possible, though difficult, to exaggerate its bad effects; and Dr. Lees has, we think, accomplished this feat. Scotland is a more drunken and more prosperous country than Ireland—England would surely stand a comparison with Naples, in all respects except the relative sobriety of the two nations—and notwithstanding the total abstinence principles of Mahometanism, we should doubt whether the Turks and Egyptians were better off, on an average, than Europeans. For reasons of which these are a specimen, we are inclined to believe that national sobriety and national prosperity are by no means convertible terms. Though the evils of drunkenness admit of being exaggerated, and are in fact exaggerated by the advocates of the Maine Law, they are no doubt so great that any plausible scheme for their removal deserves serious attention. The proposal to declare the trade in intoxicating drinks illegal is advocated by its partisans as being the only one sufficiently comprehensive to face an evil so enormous. But Dr. Lees at least entirely fails to appreciate the difficulties which would make the enactment of such a measure in this country totally impossible, or, if possible, most dangerous.
To suppress a branch of commerce is a measure which can only be justified in those extreme cases in which the object of the prohibition is an evil universally acknowledged as such. The catalogue of prohibited trades is very soon exhausted. The cultivation of tobacco is prohibited for a conclusive financial reason. The trade in immoral books and prints is forbidden because no one doubts its pernicious character. But, on the other hand, though the Legislature professes its Christian character in the strongest manner-though it expends and sanctions the expenditure of many millions of money every year for the purpose of extending Christianity-though it has even made the publication and sale of blasphemous libels a crime—it abstains, and we think wisely, from putting the law in force against dealers in them. It virtually tolerates the traffic, because some publications of that class do in good faith advocate the views which they maintain, and a very small difference in opinion as to the character of any action is enough to make it an improper subject for legal punishment or prohibition. Where such a difference of opinion exists, the law loses its moral force over those who deny its policy; and if they are subjected to the legal penalties of disobedience, nothing will prevent them from considering themselves as martyrs, or at any rate, as victims of oppression. Dr. Lees' proposal is singularly open to this objection. It calls upon us to adopt as the basis of legislation a crotchet peculiar to an insignificant minority. Substantially, his proposal is that we should interdict the use of spirituous liquors to all but the very rich; for to those who cannot afford to import on their own account, a prohibition of the trade is equivalent to a prohibition of the commodity. Such an interdict can only be defended on the ground that the use of intoxicating drinks is malum in se. Now, however true that opinion may be, it is the opinion of but a small fraction of the population, and as such cannot possibly be made the basis of legislation.
The ground which we have indicated is simple and straightforward, but it is one which Dr. Lees is anxious to avoid—probably because it exposes his cause to the consequence which we have pointed out. As he would put the case, the prohibition of the liquor trade is a sacrifice which the law ought to impose upon the sober for the sake of the intemperate. He does his best to separate the question of prohibition from the question of total abstinence, and maintains that the first may be properly and consistently advocated by those who do not approve of the second. This argument appears to us to be not only bad in principle, but to set at defiance all the special facts of the case. To make a sacrifice is one thing—to enforce a sacrifice by law upon a very large minority (to take the view most favourable to the Maine Law) is quite another thing; but this is what Dr. Lees and the Alliance wish for. The conduct of a legislator and that of a private individual in such a case must be regulated by totally different principles. St. Paul would eat no meat so long as the world stood, lest he should make his brother to offend; but he carefully avoids laying down, a general rule that no Christians should eat meat lest weak brothers should be offended. Wise legislation takes into account the interests and prejudices of all classes, even those of the sober and well-conducted; and though it might be praiseworthy in those classes to deny themselves luxuries or comforts which habit has almost made necessaries, out of regard to their weak brethren, it would be very harsh in the Legislature to force them to do so. To contend that intoxicating drinks and poison stand exactly on the same footing, is one of those puerile exaggerations which injure any cause. At the very outside, drunkards are a not inconsiderable minority of the population, whilst those who drink beer or wine are an overwhelming majority. It would probably be an enormous exaggeration to say that a quarter of those who drink intoxicating liquors sustain any other injury from them than that which, in the opinion of teetotallers, is inseparable even from their temperate consumption; and even on that enormous and extravagant estimate, the proposed law would force three people to a painful sacrifice, in order to confer a doubtful benefit on the fourth. But if the general principles upon which the Maine Law is advocated are unsound, their application to the particular case of England is still more absurd. An English Maine Law would be--and, what is of still more importance, would appear to be--an invasion, by the rich, of the pleasures of the poor. The public house and the beer shop would be shut up, but the wealthy and the clubs would import their own wine. The tap would cease to run, but the cellar would be inviolable. It may be a very sad fact, but it is incontestably true, that the public-house is the poor man's favourite, too often his only, recreation. To deprive him of this would be the immediate and palpable effect of the law; and an effect more harsh and more cruel it would be hard to conceive. To force a crude and unpopular theory upon vast masses of people—to deprive them of a favourite, even if it be a pernicious indulgence—to treat grown-up men like overgrown babies, are a few of the methods which Dr. Lees and his friends recommend as likely to conciliate the different classes of society. Whatever may be the possibilities of legislation in an American Republic, such measures as the prohibition of the liquor trade are out of the question in a country like England. To abstain from extreme and violent remedies for social evils is part of the price we have to pay for our enormous wealth, for the vast and complicated texture of English society, and for the weight which is allowed to the interests and prejudices of all ranks and classes. Legislation has its bounds everywhere, but they are sooner reached in England than anywhere else. Society with us is too big to be governed except in the broadest way, and for ends the most universally recognised. There are numberless evils which might be prevented by law in smaller States, but which can only be remedied by private enterprise in England, and drunkenness is, we believe, amongst the number.
Of course a philanthropist like Dr. Lees is quite above troubling himself about any such matter as the question of revenue. A Maine Law, he says, would make the people sober. Sobriety would increase the national wealth, and the channels of taxation would be changed, whilst the subjects of taxation would be increased. We confess that this argument seems to us to stand on sand foundations. Would a Maine Law make the people sober? We doubt it exceedingly. It could only prohibit the sale, and not the importation-nor, as we understand the proposal, the manufacture —of intoxicating drinks; and where there is, on the one hand, a right to manufacture and to possess unlimited quantities of liquor, and on the other an ardent desire to drink it, the only effect would be to give an enormous impulse to smuggling. If the Chinese cannot prevent opium smoking, we may be quite sure that we should not be able to prevent drinking. If the manufacture, as well as the sale, of spirituous liquors were prohibited we should have the additional evil of bringing the law into disrepute, and exposing large classes of society to the constant temptation of breaking it. Smuggling has something of the charm of poaching-the most seductive, and one of the most demoralizing of crimes. To be village Robin Hoods, and to withstand with dauntless breasts the exciseman and the temperance detective, would be an irresistible temptation to the whole population of audacious youths who have more blood in their veins than brains in their heads. Even in the pattern State of Maine—where, by the way, the law has been repealed as intolerable--crime actually increased under the operation of the system, owing solely, says, Dr. Lees, with naive triumph, to the convictions under the law itself. Is this such a desirable result? Is it a very encouraging consequence of prohibition that it produces more offences in one direction than it prevents in another? And if this is the state of things in a comparatively small and simple society, what would it be in the oldest and most complicated society in the world?
There is another item in Dr. Lees' little bill to which he does not advert, but which staggers us not a little. Though his proposed “reform” would, in all probability, operate principally by driving the trade into secret and illegal channels, it would give the existing brewers, distillers, wine-merchants, hotel-keepers, publicans, and beer-sellers an unquestionable claim to compensation. Dr. Lees tells us that intoxicating drinks of various kinds in this country sell for £56,000,000. annually. How much capital is employed in producing this enormous amount? Is Dr. Lees prepared to add perhaps 25 per cent, to the National Debt, in order to buy it up; and can he point out the sources from which he proposes to raise a sum sufficient to pay the interest of the compensation-money, after cutting off the most fruitful of our branches of revenue? To a philanthropist and a speechmaker these considerations may appear vulgar enough; but to lawmakers we fancy they will appear sufficiently grave to postpone to a very distant day indeed the enactment of a Maine Liquor Law in this country.
Saturday Review, October 11, 1856.