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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36

Principle of Prohibition

Principle of Prohibition,

as applied to the suppression of the alcoholic evil. It is not seldom claimed that the policy of prohibition by law does not diminish the consumption of intoxicating drinks; that human nature resents interference with personal freedom; that legal restriction becomes a nullity and in the end drunkenness and its attendant evils are increased; that the public conscience becomes hardened, and the sense of obligation to obey the laws of the land is blunted, so that the "last state of that man (and nation) is worse than the first." It will be observed, however, as a rule, that this argument is seldom advanced by those whose interests or principles incline them even so far as to the use of "moral suasion," as it is termed, to extirpate the evils of intemperance. As a rule, restrictive laws are opposed by the class of people who never resort to moral suasion themselves, and who stand in need of both page 33 legal and moral suasion to counteract the tendency of either their own interests or appetites or both. How sincerely these people believe in their position that restrictive laws which they oppose increase the evil upon which they thrive, every one is to judge for himself. But there are a few who honestly entertain that opinion. True that no law is operative except as it is made so by public opinion, but the enactment of an evidently wise and necessary law should often precede in order that it may assist in forming public opinion. Every step forward necessarily precedes and draws along the car of progress. Legislators are supposed to be selected because they are wiser than the mass of those for whom they make laws; but of what use are they if, having more wisdom, they are never to exercise it until moral suasion has raised the virtue of the people so high that the evil has disappeared and consequently the laws are unnecessary.

Laws presuppose something wrong to be prohibited, and it does not follow that they are to be repealed (or even not enacted) simply because the sentiment of a particular or even of the general community, for the time being, may not properly execute them. Agitation and the effort to enforce a good law, by demonstrating its wisdom and the blessings which flow from its enforcement, will create a public opinion which ultimately will make the law generally operative. Probably there is no criminal law whatever which is enforced in one-half the instances of its infraction. Should the law against theft, arson, burglary, forgery, and other crimes therefore be repealed? There was a condition of society, as man has progressed from the savage to the enlightened state, when there was no public conscience which took cognizance of any of these crimes. Wise legislators prescribed laws in advance of public opinion, and by their enforcement educated their peoples to a higher life and more complete acquiescence in the law. But it is said that the enforcement of laws with us depends upon the juries of the country; so it does; they are the judges of the fact. Therefore they should be impartial. And does any one believe that when a jury is selected with as complete freedom from bias as if selected for the trial of the charge of murder there would be any more difficulty in punishing that crime against society which occasions the perpetration of more than three-fourths of the murders? You inquire of every juryman upon his oath whether he is in favor of capital punishment before he is selected to pass upon a question which involves the life of his fellow-man. That man is disqualified to be a juror who does not believe in the law. In the same way ascertain his opinion as to the enforcement of restraining laws against intemperance, and thus secure an impartial jury by putting each member of the panel upon his conscience, and there is no trouble in enforcing the law.

But I do not design to follow out this train of thought. I wish to recall attention to the fact that there is no difference in principle, but only in the degree of its application, between laws which restrain and those which totally prohibit the use of intoxicating liquors, so that the question lies open only between those who would have some law and those who would have no law whatever upon the subject. Now, there is no civilized people, and I venture the assertion that there never was one, where seriously intoxicating liquors have existed which have not found it absolutely impossible to preserve the structure of society page 34 without legal restriction. Certainly there has been none in modern times, and there is none to-day so far as I know.

I wish to cite one or two instances in the recent history of the Anglo-Saxon race.