Page images
PDF
EPUB

SOME ASPECTS OF THE LIQUOR PROBLEM [Reprinted from NationAL MUNICIPAL Review, Vol. III, No. 3, July, 1914)

[blocks in formation]

Nor can

The existence of a world-wide movement against the abuse of intoxicating liquors is a patent fact. Variously manifested, it has made its way into all civilized lands. It absorbs more human energy than is devoted to any other form of social betterment. But the driving power of the movement is not so easy to discover, for it is not everywhere hitched up to the same kind of motor. it be said to be given a uniform direction. Consciousness of the menace from an unchecked abuse of drink gave the movement its first impulse. Alarm from the same cause still furnishes propelling force, but that by itself would be insufficient. In its best expression the movement does not so much signify dread because of conditions becoming worse as a keen sense of responsibility for the common welfare. Its growing strength in the countries where the greatest progress has been made in the direction of sobriety confirms this.

Extremists will of course continue to declaim about a world growing drunker and drunker. It is a convenient argument in whipping up a flagging interest in their panacea—universal prohibitionin spite of damaging and almost hopeless admission involved, that the unremitting labor of years for temperance has largely been unproductive. But the backbone of the movement is not calamity howling; therefore, it is not necessary to support it by marshalling evidence about comparative conditions of sobriety or inebriety. In passing it may be said, however, that the gaps of ignorance about

1 See also articles by Mr. Koren on “The International Committee for the Scientific Study of the Alcohol Question,” Vol. II, page 275, and “The Status of Liquor License Legislation,” Vol. II, page 629.

2 Mr. Koren was an expert for the Committee of Fifty of which Dr. Charles W. Eliot, James C. Carter, the first president of the National Municipal League, and Seth Low were among the moving spirits. He is now secretary of the American section of the International Committee for the Scientific Study of the Alcohol Question, and a member of the National Municipal League's committee on the municipal liquor problem. - Editor.

the situation are so great that even one endowed with a competent sense of fact finds hard and fast conclusions barred on all sides. And by uncritically accepting current statements about the consumption of alcohol as portraying actual abuse, one can “prove” the impossible. Thus it might be shown that the notably sober countries of Europe, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, are really the most drunken, since, forsooth, their per capita consumption, translated into terms of pure alcohol, tops that of nearly all others. Take another example. Recent press dispatches picture Russia as par excellence a land of sots; and they may tell the truth, although the fine hand of the politician is plainly visible in them. Yet the latest official returns for European Russia indicate a per capita consumption of spirits considerably below that of Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary and Argentina, not to mention France. In brief, the available means of gauging relative conditions in respect to the use of alcohol are very faulty and inadequate; so much so that the International Statistical Institute has recently thought it necessary to establish a commission to study the subject and devise improved methods of presentation.

Meanwhile, it is not material to this discussion whether certain absolutists reason without the facts or on the basis of manufactured evidence. At all events, the world-movement against the drink abuse does not need to be bolstered up by exaggerations. Its paramount strength comes from the spreading conviction that the abuse of drink is a menace which must be counteracted, a conviction springing from a clearer perception of social duty and not necessarily associated with any belief in patented methods by which such duty alone can be discharged.

A keen realization of the drink evil is quite compatible with the view that persistent, if slow, progress is being made in counteracting it. One must be an incorrigible pessimist or a professional agitator to deny that the liquor problem has reached a vastly better status than it occupied some generations ago. To all others it is tolerably plain that the forces of education, improved social customs, the new demands of industrial organization, the better understanding of health questions, no longer permit us to condone an attitude toward the drink question which formerly passed unchallenged. Among other evidence on this point may be cited the present position of the trade, at least in this country, which no longer is one of aggression, but of constructive defence, carrying with it an admission of a need of vigorous and clean control of an “inherently dangerous traffic."

The implication is by no means that we should leave well enough alone. Only a superficial optimist can find contentment with present conditions. The question what should be done for continued improvement is still pertinent, but over it those who should work together for the same end are split asunder. In European countries, the weight of the temperance movement is directed against abuse, chiefly by the aid of legislative and educational expedients; and coupled with it is a live personal abstinence agitation. To be sure, an extreme wing is not wanting. There are well-defined groups of prohibitionists in many lands. But their demand for the ultimate extinction of the manufacture and sale of drink has not blinded them to the usefulness of restrictive and regulative measures. They may be found patiently helping their governments to formulate such measures, realizing that true progress is but gained by successive steps. They still acknowledge that the many-sided liquor problem requires study, and that in dealing with it one must be guided by reason and not blindly follow sentiment.

In the United States, those who would be the exclusive leaders in temperance work seem to have passed beyond the study stage. To them it must sound like an echo from a by-gone day that a wellknown temperance organization in Russia recently offered a prize of ten thousand dollars for the best draft of a law to govern the liquor traffic. They deny that there can be any other road to public sobriety than the straight path of prohibition. Those who think and dare to say that it does not lead to a millennium are commonly stigmatized as the spokesmen of evil and in league with every antisocial force. Efforts at scientific inquiry of any phrase of the liquor question are more or less suspected. Instead we are asked to accept ready-made dicta without questioning their worth. In plain truth,

direction of the anti-alcohol moyement in the United States appears to have fallen largely into the hands of a professional group of advocates who cannot afford to bide by an appeal to reason. This linsugared statement does not carry with it any disparagement of the thousands who follow them from convictions and unmixed motives, much less a denial of the undoubted benefits from the temperance movement in its purer forms which has been indispensable to progress.

This world-movement has, broadly speaking, had a double pur

the

pose: (1) to persuade the individual to embrace temperance or abstinence; and (2) to stop the excesses of an uncontrolled or illregulated and heedless trade. That as a part result the public attitude toward the abuse of drink has been profoundly and favorably modified in this country one may affirm without fear of contradiction, leaving aside the question of the complex forces that have influenced it. Likewise, it is undisputed that the trade, as represented by its leading elements, no longer countenances its old-time attitude, for it admits the need of house-cleaning and is bound to undertake it. The right of a community to a free choice between licensing and forbidding the sale of intoxicants, it acknowledges. Stringent control, which it once fought, is now recognized as its safety. That the days of the village and cross-roads grog-shop are gone never to return, it concedes openly. In short, it is no longer the aggressive, defiant trade of former days, and not to trace this change of front to temperance work reinforced by a more enlightened public opinion is to deny the obvious. Nothing that has been said implies contentment with the present status of the trade. One can acknowledge its improvement without experiencing satisfaction with things as they

are.

To the essence of the temperance movement we owe large and lasting benefits; but it does not follow that one must laud its present-day excrescence.

The movement has undergone momentous changes in this country. Moral suasion as a means of betterment seems to have been relegated to the background. The old line prohibition party, which more or less exemplified it, has become a negligible factor. It has been replaced by an agency which knows no political party so long as it can use any for its own end. Its creed is coercion rather than persuasion, and its strength lies in its ability to make capital out of political cowardice. Much, perhaps most, of the recent prohibition legislation might properly bear this legend: "Enacted under political pressure, not from conviction.” The situation is so palpable that one need not be asked to furnish proof. But just because of their political aspects one grows skeptical about the extent of many alleged victories for temperance, for in a question affecting public morality majorities won under political compulsion do not count. As an impartial observer of American conditions has recently said: "Even when the vote shows the majority to be in favor of prohibition legislation, one cannot from the size of the majority draw a decisive conclusion in regard to the numbers of voters who are truly adherents of prohibition. As for that, these may actually be in the minority. In the American prohibition states it has repeatedly been shown that numbers of persons who vote for prohibition do not do so because they are personally convinced of its expediency and are willing to contribute personally to its enforcement, but from ulterior motives. They vote for these laws partly that they in return may gain the support of prohibitionists in election to local offices or as members of the legislature. Partly, they desire to get the prohibitionist vote in seeking one of the other positions which in the state are filled by popular elections and which may bring economic advantage or satisfy one's ambition. And when these persons have attained the places for which they have striven, one observes that they in part personally transgress the law that they have helped to force through, in part close their eyes to the violation by others and are not concerned about counteracting it, as by their votes they did not intend to court bother or make enemies.” He then points to the great extent to which "politics has entered into the special prohibition cause as well as into the abstinence cause generally,” and adds: "When prohibition is given a place on a party machine program there is, if it is carried through, still less guarantee that the rank and file of the party will live up to it or will exert itself to get it enforced, than when the individual citizen binds himself to vote for it. For as remarked, it will be a long time before the general public will regard the transgression of a liquor law as equivalent to a crime."1

The radical defect of the prohibitionist movement as at present engineered is the devious political methods employed. There is a sordid trading for votes to carry a moral issue. That conviction must underlie the votes in order to make them effective has ceased to be accepted. Superficially, the method of votes at any price seems effective. Men are easily made cowards by threats of political annihilation or of social ostracism. The barter of conviction for place or favor belongs to the shadowside of popular government. Yet it is deliberately fostered by persons who undertake to speak in the name of lofty morality, for the history of recent prohibition contests fairly reeks of a method of bidding for votes that in its essence is

1 Some Principal Traits of the Alcohol Legislation and Its Enforcement in the United States, by Dr. A. Holst, professor of Sanitation, University of Norway.

« PreviousContinue »