Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Woman Problem & other prose

The Wowser in the Woodpile

page 50

The Wowser in the Woodpile

Ideally, the conference of the Women's Christian Temperance Union should provide us ordinary mortals with an annual diversion, a feast of amusing nonsense to lighten the burden of our days. It would certainly do so, were the behaviour and the opinions of this body as odd (meaning 'unusual') as one would wish them to be. Unfortunately they are shared by altogether too large and influential a group of our fellow-citizens to be called odd in that sense, and some of the antics of the W.C.T.U. turn out, on reflection, to be a rather unfunny sort of joke.

We are not the only country in which wowserism is active. The newspapers reported the other day that some similar organisation of busybodies in England had monitored broadcast programmes over a period, collected and classified all references to alcoholic drinks, and made a protest to the B.B.C. I think it could be maintained, however, that the fundamental attitude of mind that produces wowserism, the particular state of spiritual intoxication, is probably more general in New Zealand than anywhere else. Only in New Zealand, for instance, could a monopoly such as the Auckland Transport Board forbid smoking in its buses and get away with it without any audible squeak of protest being heard. And only in New Zealand could liquor laws and drinking conditions be so completely Alice in Wonderland.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union, as its name implies, is mainly concerned with what it calls 'the liquor traffic'; although it does not hesitate to enter upon other and more fanciful crusades—against the 'immorality' of nudism, for instance—when the spirit moves it. The prime motivation of its supporters is that of Puritans throughout the ages: to page 51prevent other people from doing things which they, the Puritans, do not wish to do. (The psychologist might be inclined, in some cases, to probe more deeply.) In this instance they apparently do not wish to drink wine, beer or spirits. They therefore set out to interfere as effectively as possible with other people's consumption of these things. The result is not to prevent bad effects from arising out of the consumption of 'alcohol'. New Zealanders, except for the powerful minority of its people who are prohibitionists (and who have their own vices, such as spiritual pride), are not notable for 'temperance'. People who support the W.C.T.U. and similar organisations choose to blame 'the traffic' for the harm done through rash consumption of 'liquor'. A more careful analysis of the situation would probably reveal a close causal connection between prohibitionist activity and the deplorable drinking customs of this community.

To hold a prohibition referendum in which both drinkers and non-drinkers are allowed to vote is to invite an impudent intrusion on other people's business by those who, as a matter of personal choice, decide to spend their money on chocolates, lemonade, movies, magazines, and a hundred other things instead of on beer. Imagine the gentlemen of the public bar being invited to vote on whether (say) cosmetics and high-heeled shoes should be banned by law! They would regard such a proposal as illiberal and presumptuous. The wowsers, however, are not in the least ashamed to impose their private prejudices on other people to the limit that is within their power. The result is that the other people do their best to outwit the wowsers, and this has the effect of bringing the law into contempt. It also leads to drinking conditions that encourage drunkenness and racketeering.

The laws which at present restrict the consumption of alcoholic drinks and on the whole canalise it in the direction of futility or mischief, spring from a particular conception of the State. According to this notion (which is accepted without protest by many others besides prohibitionists) a prime duty of the State is to control the morals of the people. On a more liberal view, based on a belief in freedom as the first condition page 52of morality, the chief duties of the State are to maintain internal peace and order, and to enter into necessary relations with other States. Its functions should be as far as possible merely regulatory. That an entity as abstract and impersonal as the State should be allowed to exercise authority over our private morals is surely intolerable, however much we have come to tolerate it. Morality is for the individual conscience, or for the Church, if individuals like to band together and submit themselves to a common discipline (which must not then be imposed on outsiders, either directly or through control of the State apparatus). In certain ways this limitation of State power is recognised. There is, for instance, no law against adultery as such. It can be contended that there is no law against 'drinking' as such—although some recent developments in the control of motor traffic seem to be casting doubt on that. The legal restrictions on drinking are, however, narrow enough to create a situation that is thoroughly unwholesome from every point of view.

Tied up with all this is the question of sumptuary taxation. The Minister of Finance must get his money from somewhere. It is cynically agreed, in our justice-loving community, that he must get it from sources he can rely on. Instead of one single tax on personal income—which would represent the closest possible approximation to justice in an imperfect world—we have taxes imposed on this, that and the other thing. The guiding principles are, firstly, expediency (we may yet have a special tax imposed on people with red hair), and secondly, a strongly-felt desire on the part of politicians and their supporters to make people more 'moral''. Drinking tea is, in New Zealand, a completely moral activity, so it carries no tax at all. Going to the films is slightly immoral. Drinking beer or wine is, on the other hand, very immoral indeed, so the taxation is stiff. This sort of nonsense involves, as a necessary consequence, the arbitrary definition of 'luxury' goods. In a free society the only acceptable definition of 'luxuries' would be: what Tom, Dick and Harry buy with their marginal income. Any other definition must be based either on high cost of production (which should be left to produce its own results), or upon this other thing I am page 53speaking about—a desire to hinder somebody from doing something for 'moral' reasons.

Let prohibitionists be as critical as they wish about alcoholic liquor and its effects. There is plenty of room for criticism. Argument and persuasion are legitimate enough. So long as there is no law that compels them to drink, they have no right to use their political influence to have laws passed to prevent other people from drinking. If they reply that they are indirectly affected, in that alcoholic liquor does harm to the community in general, then it must be pointed out to them that the same thing applies to many other things—to motor-cars, shoddy foodstuffs and trashy reading-matter, for example. Being born is itself a hazardous business: one stands a big chance of dying sooner or later.

From earliest times the drinking of wine and similar things has been an essential part of civilised life. The banning, or even the unnecessary restriction, of any normal activity always produces a situation in which corruption thrives. The extension of Trust control might be beneficial in New Zealand, provided it did not conceal a crypto-wowser motive. But something more is needed. Beer and wines should be sold in all grocers' shops—with no legal obligation on the consumer to buy two gallons at a time—and restaurants and other public eating places should be allowed to serve them. Moreover, they should be available for as many hours out of the twenty-four (including Saturdays and Sundays) as possible: that is to say, for as long as people want them, and other people are willing to serve them. If any reader considers this proposal fantastic, I suggest to him that it has a further implication: the degree of its 'impracticability' is a measure of how far we have already 'progressed' towards the totalitarian State.

A particularly gross piece of injustice is the legal enforcement of a link between the liquor industry and that which supplies accommodation. Any hotel manager will tell you that he loses money on the bed-and-board side of his business, and picks it up on sales over the bar. In effect, this means that the drinker is compelled to subsidise the tourist and the commercial traveller. There is no defence for this in morality page 54or common justice. But it happens to suit the pockets of huge vested interests; and it helps to fulfil the general intention of penalising the drinker by hook or by crook. So it goes on.

When one gets down to details, one of the most important clues to the solution of the 'liquor problem' lies in the encouragement of wine-drinking. The normal way in which to drink wine is with one's meals. A number of our growers are beginning to turn out dry unfortified white and red wines of sound quality, high enough to meet the needs of the wine-drinker who is not at the same time a wine-snob. The price—usually£I a gallon—is low enough for the man on an average income to cope with. The development of this trade is at present seriously hindered by a mass of petty restrictions. The encouragement (or even the non-discouragement) of the sale of wines of this type, both in restaurants and for home consumption, could do much to improve the quality of life in New Zealand.

At the recent Agricultural Show in Auckland there was a wine competition, which was well-reported in the press. It was discouraging to find that the basic red and white types were heavily over-shadowed by other classes of a very dubious kind, some of which barely escape the label 'plonk'— heavily-fortified sweet 'sherries' (pah!), liqueurs, and so on. I venture to say that the foundation of wine-drinking, in any country where it is practised in a civilised way, is the wide-spread consumption of light, dry wines. The order of reference in this competition suggested that we are trying to run before we can walk—and to run over broken bottles into the bargain.

A word in conclusion: the test of a political democracy is not the number of opportunities it provides for the majority to assert their will. Majority rule is a matter purely of expediency. The tyranny of a majority is just as obnoxious as that of a dictator. (What we are dealing with when it comes to restrictions on drinking is, I think, the obstruction not of a majority but of a highly-organised and bitterly self-righteous minority.) The real test of a democracy is the page 55degree of freedom it manages to find practicable for all individuals and groups to pursue their own ends, without interfering with other people.

A very good way to make life completely impossible in New Zealand would be for all of us to join crusades to prevent other people from doing things we ourselves have no desire to do.