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The Intoxicating Liquors Bill
by [?]

Anything more absurd than the late debate in the House on the best means of suppressing intemperance it is very hard to imagine. First of all, in the van, came the grievance to be redressed; and we had a statistical statement of all the gallons of strong drink consumed–all the moneys diverted from the legitimate uses of the family–all the debauchees who rolled drunk through our streets, and all the offences directly originating in this degrading vice. Now, what conceivable order of mind could prompt a man to engage in such a laborious research? Who either doubts the enormity of drunkenness or its frequency? It is a theme that we hear of incessantly. The pulpit rings with it, the press proclaims it, the judges declare it in all their charges, and a special class of lecturers have converted it into a profession. None denied the existence of the disease; what we craved was the cure. Some discrepancy of opinion prevailed as to whether the vice was on the increase or the decrease. Statistics were given, and, of course, statistics supported each assertion. This, however, was a mere skirmish–the grand battle was, How was drunkenness to be put down?

Mr Lawson’s plan was: If four-fifths of the ratepayers of any district were agreed that no spirituous liquors should be sold there, that such should become a law, and no licence for their sale should be issued. The mover of this proposal, curiously enough, called this “bringing public opinion to bear on the question.” What muddle of intelligence could imagine this to be an exercise of public opinion I cannot imagine. Such, however, is the plan. Drunkenness is to be repressed by making it impossible. Did it never occur to the honourable gentleman, that all legislative enactments whatever work not by enforcing what is good, but by punishing what is evil? No law that ever was made would render people honest and true to their engagements; but we arrive at a result not very dissimilar by making dishonesty penal.

The Decalogue declares: “Thou shalt not commit a murder.” Human law pronounces what will come of it if you do. It is, doubtless, very imperfect legislation, but there is no help for it. We accept such cases, however, as the best defences we can find for our social condition, never for a moment presuming to think that we are rendering a vice impossible by attaching to it a penalty.

Mr Lawson, however, says, There shall be no drunkenness, because there shall be no liquor. Why not extend the principle–for it is a great discovery–and declare that, wherever four-fifths of the ratepayers of a town or borough are of opinion that ingratitude is a great offence to morals and a stain to human nature, in that district where they reside there shall be no benefits conferred, nor any act of kindly aid or assistance rendered by one man to his neighbour? I have no doubt that, by such legislation, you would put down ingratitude. We use acts in the moral world pretty much as in the physical; and it is entirely by the impossibility of committing the offence that this gentleman proposes to prevent its occurrence. But, in the name of common sense, why do we inveigh against monasteries and nunneries?–why are we so severe on a system that substitutes restraint for reason, and instead of correction supplies coercion? Surely this plan is based on exactly the same principle. Would it, I ask, cure a man of lying–I mean the vice, not the practice–to place him in a community where no party was permitted to talk?

The example of the higher classes was somewhat ostentatiously paraded in the debate, and members vied with each other in declaring how often they dined out without meeting a drunkard in the company. This is very gratifying and reassurring; but I am not aware that anybody ascribed the happy change to the paucity of the decanters, and the difficulty of getting the bottle; or whether it was that four-fifths of the party had declared an embargo on the sherry, and realised the old proverb by elevating necessity to the rank of virtue.