The liquor bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature will not, I hope, set the keynote for liquor legislation after repeal. After giving its sanction to taverns, the bill went on to allow music and dancing in them, and then executed an ingenuous right about face by prohibiting the admission of women. It is useless to comment on a bill so muddled and ridiculous as this; what it reveals about the Massachusetts legislature may be important, but it will obviously be amended before any police agency undertakes the task of its enforcement.
There exists throughout the nation today a mass reaction against the speak-easy and the bootlegger, nor are the causes of that reaction difficult to trace. These institutions have provided the people, in most cases, with a brand of liquor potable only in defiance, and they have done it with bad grace, at an exalted price level, and amidst surroundings which were, except in the largest cities, incredibly sordid. The bootlegger, whenever he advanced in his calling to the point of professionalism, became a public enemy in the way that any large class outside the law does; he settled his differences outside the law, to the accompaniment of slaughter and terrorism. The early colonial fur traders became suspect for the same reason, although the sin of the bootlegger has been aggravated by a centralization which made him a vast entrepreneur in other criminal fields, and produced the American genus racketeer, with all that it connotes in the breakdown of municipal, state, and even federal administration.
Even though the bootlegger and the speakeasy were humorously accepted in the beginning, there is no large class which preserves loyalty to them today. But those whose experience antedates prohibition remember that the saloon, distinguished by the matter of fact consumption of hard liquor by men standing around a counter, was an institution both ungraceful and, in the true sense of the word, vicious. Of course there existed in the cities a wealthy class able to purge the saloon, as they now purge the speakeasy and the brothel, of its superficially disagreeable features, but from a national point of view the return of the saloon must certainly he discouraged.
Those who see in law a real social instrument, with connotations as important as its denotations, are inclined to believe that the solution lies not in any arbitrary prohibitions or injunctions, but in an attempt to form the national drinking habit along more civilized lines than it has ever followed in the past. Drunkenness, after all, is the evil, and it is an evil that does not assume unmanageable proportions in any of the great nations in Europe. This is primarily traceable to a habit of living which treats drink, not as an independent and serious enterprise, but as a minor adjunct to the pleasures of the table. Hard liquor has not become popular for a very obvious reason; beer and wine are just as natural, and sane, and agreeable with a dinner as a strong drink such as whiskey is the reverse of all of these things.
The people of the United States have inherited, or acquired, a tradition of lawlessness, an eclectic attitude toward the observance of law that is parallel to, although not wholly caused by, the profusion and unrepresentative character of their laws. For this reason they must be dealt with cautiously in most administrative matters, and especially in those which are sumptuary. But they are by now so thoroughly disgusted with the immediate effects of prohibition, and so willing to eschew the saloon if a satisfactory alternative presents itself, that the framing of wise liquor legislation is a matter or profound social importance. That legislation must set at the beginning a far frontier of government control upon which no one will dare to encroach; specifically, it should prohibit the sale of liquor of any kind outside of federal dispensaries and restaurants. In the beginning, those restaurants may seem to be little more than dining saloons, and there will probably be drunkenness and some measure of public vice carried on in them.
But they would tend to subordinate drinking to eating, and would make that subordination natural in the public mind. We have tried to reform the public mind by an imposed abstention, and we have seen that the reform must proceed largely from, and must be moulded by, that mind itself. The barbarism of the frontier has left its impress on our drinking habits long enough; now that a class has arisen which is moving away from the frontier in other things, our law must keep pace with it, over anticipating its upward trends, and recognizing the need for social stability which our civilization is surely old enough to feel. POLLUX.