The Things that are not Caesar's

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Herman Kuehn

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"WHAT about the liquor question? Can it be settled? What is the way to settle it—the right way?"

These interrogatories by Everybody's will doubtless evoke a flood of suggestions as to how the state ought to go about solving the problem. Yet that is precisely what governmental processes have never succeeded in accomplishing. All that we have of progress has been wrested from Caesar— never contributed by him. Neither monarchy nor democracy, nor any scheme or device of coercion or restraint can successfully cope with a psychological problem.

And that is what the liquor question really is. Neither prelate, potentate, nor politician can effectually deal with a problem that has its root in Desire. Desire permits but one solution—gratification.

Political processes, seeking to hinder gratification, serve but to stimulate desire. The intensity of desire is enhanced by the very difficulties interposed between it and its gratification.

In this respect the drink habit is normal—that is, it is natural for the habit to persist so long as it is opposed. Nevertheless the drink addiction is an abnormality because it is the result of perversion. Every perverted desire is the "natural" result of the undertaking to stifle a normal desire.

Let the most ardent prohibitionist cite what facts he may, he can not overstate his case. And though he wing his flight to the uttermost realms of fancy and depict the horrors wrought by drunkenness on the scale in which it obtains in our country at this day, his indictment will probably not be grossly overdrawn. But when he has marshaled his array of "horrible examples" and gruesome instances he straightway leaps to the conclusion that an appeal to Caesar is the "next step." In fact it is the only step he knows anything about. He takes no counsel of the experience of all the past. Nor does he realize that he, and such as he, do more to excite a demand for strong drink than do the manufacturers of such beverages.

The "drink evil" is not the real issue. It is not a problem per se. It is but a minor ramification of the most important problem

confronting the student of biology—man's relation to his environment.

Don't shudder! I shall not indulge an expedition from the inane to the germane. I mean to stick to the text. And my answer to the question: "Can it be settled?" is, No! It will settle itself when we quit trying to settle it by legislation. We must quit rendering unto Caesar the things that Caesar always botches.

There is neither wholesomeness nor intelligence in attacking symptoms.

So much by way of preface. Now for some facts:

The cost of pure whisky (with corn around fifty cents the bushel) is about seven cents the gallon. Including a perfectly good little brown jug, the retail price of a gallon would not exceed thirty cents.

At such a price there would be no incentive to adulterate the commodity.

Were there no restrictions upon the sale of the product "the saloon" would be unprofitable and therefore impossible.

"Treating" would find more intelligent expression.


In view of these facts, let us see what becomes of the averment that the people of our country expend some two billions of dollars annually for strong drink. I have no exact data whereupon to base the computation, but taking the price at which pure whisky could be bought in a free-trade market and the price that adulterated substitutes command, we shall find that nine-tenths of the outlay is for licenses, excises, imposts, taxes, and the enormous cost of espionage and collection, together with the various species of graft, tribute, and excessive profits involved in the traffic.

Whatever the cost, it may be too much. Let the moralists attend to that phase of the question. Fidelity to fact, however, demands that we charge up nine-tenths of that two billions annually to the account that absorbs the dollars and not to the drink addiction. Drinkers pay it, doubtless, but not for drink. They pay it in order to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and gratification of desire.

Strictly speaking (if strictly speaking be not barred), most of those two billions are blackmail, levied under the guise of benevolence. Hell is paved with the material of just such benevolence. The intention may be good, but this may also be said of that animating the kindly chap who threw his drowning friend a crowbar.

Where strong drinks are free from adulteration and from the enhancement in price due to meddlesome restrictions, the effects would not justify the lurid diatribes of the Prohibitionist. One rarely sees a resident of the wine-growing regions of France who drinks to excess.


As for the "treating" habit: it has met with an altogether undeserved measure of detraction. "Treating" is a fine manifestation of neighborliness, hospitality, generosity, and good-fellowship. That "evils" have grown out of such expressions of good-will is not at all due to the animating motive. Such "evils" are obtruded upon good-fellowship because governmentally perverted processes have forced a generous impulse into dangerous channels. Were there no far more serious indictment against reliance upon Caesar, this alone were sufficient to condemn our blind idolatry. To turn friendliness from its natural current into a slough of debauchery and debasement is a natural effect of the superstition that obsesses the mass of contemporaneous mankind.

Were whisky as cheap as buttermilk and were drinking places not fostered by the very processes designed to curb them, treating would still persist, but would find more wholesome expression.

Prohibitionists profess to find that the drink habit is a cause of poverty. Others that poverty causes the habit. Only empiricists divide on this phase of the issue. It it a mark of superficiality to look for various causes for involuntary poverty. There is but one. It can be found in the primitive deference we pay to land titles. That, of course, is not within the scope of the present discussion.

Nor shall I consider here the arguments

for or against the propriety of including wines and beers within the general objurgation heaped upon stronger spirituous drinks. For the sake of brevity I confine myself to saying that where there are no restrictions and no inducements to adulterate them, they are better if otherwise good, and not so bad if otherwise blameworthy.

What I have here set forth is sufficient to condemn me, off-hand, in the eyes of any Prohibitionist as a debauchee, a drunkard, and an "enemy of society." Yet I am free of the drink habit and have a decided preference for associating with temperate and intelligent people; especially with such as are free from the intemperance of meddlesomeness.

Governmental activities have done more than all else to produce the deplorable conditions under consideration.


What, then, is to be done? Nothing. We must quit doing as we have been doing. And thus give normality its opportunity. Macaulay tells us that the so-called "evils of liberty" are merely evidences that there has not been liberty enough. Liberty is the freedom of each person to do whatsoever he will at his own cost. Nor is "at his own cost" a limitation upon liberty. It is of the essence of liberty. For whoso does anything at another's cost is not exercising liberty but violating it.

The abstraction we call the State, exercising sovereignty over a subject class (and this is as true of a democracy as in a monarchy or autocracy), has in all ages sought to mold, curb, or stifle desire. Every page of history teems with instances. Failures all! Surely in an array so multitudinous we should find a single record of success. We look for it in vain. Yet always this infatuation persists—that what has always baffled the interplay of cause and effect is somehow, some time, to be effectuated by act of Congress!

Liberty and decency. This is but another way of saying "cause and effect. Despotism and misery is another paraphrase equally valid. Freedom alone can assure us of social harmony and individual well-being.

  • Herman Kuehn, “The Things that are not Caesar’s,” Everybody’s Magazine 30, no. 6 (June 1914): 804-805.