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Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand

I — The Logic of Prohibition

page 15

The Logic of Prohibition

There is really nothing wrong about Prohibition but the name. When Sir Wilfred Lawson called his first Local Option Bill a ‘Permissive Bill’ he made a much happier choice. The true logical import of his title may have been correctly defined as ‘Permit me to prevent you from having a glass of grog,’ but there was an air of sweet reasonableness about the name which was disarming and even winning. Prohibition, on the other hand, has a drastic and repellent sound, and though it would really effect an incalculable extension of human liberty, though it would be just as truly a great measure of emancipation as was the abolition of the slave trade it sounds like tyranny and by the unthinking is condemned as such. But if the position were reversed, and instead of a Prohibition vote for the expulsion of the liquor traffic a permissive vote were needed to let it in, there would be far less excuse for misunderstanding.

The arguments in favour of the admission of strong drink would be that it is pleasant to the taste, and that in strict moderation it is a great promoter of personal and social pleasure. The opposition would rely on the notorious contributions which alcohol makes to the social evils of every page 16 country where it is tolerated and on its devastating effects both moral and economic.

Alcohol, said Sir William Gull, M.D., is the most destructive agent we are aware of in this country.

The quantity of alcohol consumed in a district said Baron Dowse, an Irish Judge, is the measure of its degradation.

From a sociological standpoint, says the Catholic Encycloœdia, we are compelled, by incontrovertible evidence, to acknowledge that it (alcohol) is, of all causes, the most frequent source of poverty, unhappiness, divorce, suicide, immorality, crime, insanity, disease and death.

Some items in this terrible catalogue would be more than doubled by the establishment of the liquor traffic in a country that had hitherto been free from it. What decent man would regard the promotion of a purely carnal pleasure as a sufficient reason for the introduction into a previously untainted country of so potent a moral and social curse?

Logically, the case for expelling the traffic is exactly the same as the case for refusing it admission would have been if the point had been taken in time, or as the case for the exclusion of opium ‘in any form suitable for smoking’ was when it was adopted nearly thirty years ago. The balance of pleasure and pain, of right and wrong, is still to the eye of reason as clear as ever, but custom and appetite, the vested interests of a few and the apathy of many make a powerful combination which presents in favour of acquiescence a number of more or less respectable pleas which, as arguments for a charge could hardly have deceived anybody. The most plausible of these is the liberty
Hon. L. M. Isitt, M.L.C.,Outstanding and fearless prohibition orator; strenuous in and out of Parliament

Hon. L. M. Isitt, M.L.C.,
Outstanding and fearless prohibition orator; strenuous in and out of Parliament

Rev. F. W. Isitt,Secretary NZ. Alliance, 1900–09; Editor ‘The Prohibitionst.’

Rev. F. W. Isitt,
Secretary NZ. Alliance, 1900–09; Editor ‘The Prohibitionst.’

A. S. (now Justice) Adams, Seven times President of N. Z. Alliance

A. S. (now Justice) Adams,
Seven times President of N. Z. Alliance

Rev. John Dawson,Sixteen years General Secretary of N. Z. Alliance

Rev. John Dawson,
Sixteen years General Secretary of N. Z. Alliance

page 17 of the subject. We are told that ‘there are limits to the moral functions of legislation, and that Prohibition is beyond these limits’; that ‘Prohibition must be limited to acts and usages which are intherently bad’; and that ‘Prohibition stands condemned as involving a serious outrage against the natural rights and liabilities of individuals, and it contemptuously disregards the claims of it dissenting minorities.’

The strength of statements of this kind lies not in their logic, but in their eloquence. The ‘liberty of the subject,’ if not actually a contradiction in terms, is certainly not so definite and authoritative a principle that it can be allowed to overrule the soverignty of the State. All the personal liberties that we enjoy are themselves the creation of the State. Whether they should be enlarged, reduced, or abolished is not a matter of abstract right to or personal morals but a practical issue to be determined in every case by its relation to the public welfare and the capacity of the State to interfere effectively. The fact that there are sins which are not crimes shows that there are some acts not inherently bad which the State is compelled to tolerate because it cannot make its interference effective. Conversely, there is nothing immoral or ‘intherently bad’ in driving on the wrong side of the road or at a rapid pace, in spitting on the pavement in keeping pigs in a borough, or in keeping rabbits anywhere. Yet nobody suggests that such things may not be proper subjects for legislative prohibition. Both classes of cases show that it is not the immorality of an act, but its effect upon the public welfare that determines the attiude of the State towards it. In every case the question is not one of natural or abstract right but of practical page 18 convenience and common sense. Burke puts the matter in a nutshell when he says:

‘Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it…. The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience.’

It is, however, a fallacy to assume that a Prohibition by the State which avowedly subordinates the liberty of the individual to the interest of the whole is necessarily inimical to liberty. Liberty is itself the creation of law, for there is no liberty in a condition of anarchy; and though a State may, by a wise act of interference, provoke an immediate conflict with the tastes and prejudices of many of its citizens, it does not in the long run reduce the sum of personal liberty by such an assertion of its authority, but on the contrary enlarges both. No prose philosopher of my acquaintance has expressed this paradox with a force or a wit exceeding those of Butler's couplet:

For wholesome laws preserve us free
By stinting of our liberty.

Translated into clumsy prose, this means that the stinting of our liberty is essential to our freedom, and therefore enlarges what it seems to stint. The moral and economic transformation which would be effected by the elimination of the most prolific of the preventible causes of crime, poverty, disease and waste of every kind would provide a community just as conspicuously the superior of the old one in freedom as in most other things worth having. page 19 And for a large majority of the population, including the women and children and others least able to protect themselves, the advance in freedom and happiness would be without a material set-off’ of any kind whatever.

If, as Locke says, ‘the end of the government is the good of mankind,’ every people has a clear call to protect itself by destroying what a great English man of science above quoted calls ‘the most destructive agency that we are aware of in this country.’