What Claim have the Dealers in Intoxicating Liquors to Compensation in the Event of Legislative Changes Affecting the Profits of Their Trade?
[Abstract of Paper by Mr. Samuel Fothergill, read at the Social Science Congress Leeds, October, 1871.]
1. The liquor sellers hare no title whatever to compensation. The cry of "confiscation" raised by the Home Secretary, and echoed by the publicans, has introduced a vicious element into the discussion. They have no case for compensation. No part of their property is taken from them. They are deprived of no right. They are simply deprived of a privilege granted conditionally for the public benefit, and liable at any time to be withheld from them, as it now is from all the rest of the community. The tenure of the license has been made to hold only from year to year, for the express purpose of enabling the Government of the country to keep a very tight reign upon a trade which, in all ages and in all countries, has proved itself a nuisance, and a source of moral and social deterioration. The only plea now held out as the ground of a supposed "vested interest" is the culpable leniency with which the Government and the magistracy have long treated the holders of licenses. To make the supineness of Government, and still worse its complicity with acknowledged abuse, an excuse for further leniency towards those who profit by it at the expense of society in general, would be a most dangerous innovation in the principles of legislation. The license-holder knows the exceptional risks of his trade—he calculates on its exceptional profits—and he has therefore no more title to compensation than would any other tradesman whose business fails to answer his expectations.
2. But the liquor trade is an acknowledged nuisance, only tolerated because of its supposed necessity. It would be contrary to all precedent and all justice to offer compensation to the perpetrator of a nuisance. On the contrary, he is saddled with all the expenses attendant on its removal, and is also liable to heavy damages for the injuries he has already inflicted. If, as Mr. Bruce said, "all existing interests" are to receive "full and fair consideration," then must the victims of public-house temptation, the drunkards, their wifes and families, the sufferers from drunken violence, the tradesmen whoso businesses are page 24 injured, the neighboring property depreciated by the proximity of a public-house, the excessively taxed ratepayers, be permitted to advance their claims. When the liquor sellers have met these long-standing claims, it will be quite time enough for them to advance their own.
3. The conditions on which licenses are granted and the liquor traffic tolerated are notoriously not fulfilled. Witness the aggravated and alarming evils of intemperance and the urgent call for a remedy. It is impossible, in fact, to carry on the trade without both permitting and encouraging drunkenness, and thus defeating the purpose for which the trade is placed under special control. The publicans having failed to fulfil the design of their special privilege, its withdrawal would be simple justice. It is thus withdrawn from some every brewster's sessions.
4. But the trade will not suffer to the extent that is generally supposed. Even if the sale of strong liquors were totally prohibited, the legitimate trade of the publican and hotel-keeper would remain unimpaired. Entertainment and refreshment for man and beast would be as much needed as ever, nay more, for trade would be immensely improved, travelling for pleasure as well as for business would increase with the growing prosperity, the hotels and public-houses would flourish, property in them would be little if anything impaired in value, and a disagreeable and demoralising business would be transformed into one that is thoroughly respectable and eminently useful to the community.
5. The plea put forward of the enormous wealth of the trade, and the number of persons supported by it, is totally fallacious, if the trade is ruinous to the best interests of society, it would be the height of injustice, it would be monstrous to perpetuate it for the sole benefit of a class of men willing to profit by the suffering and ruin of a large number of their fellow-citizens. The greater the wealth of the trade, the worse for the argument,—for so much the greater is the wrong to society. A sense of shame, had it existed, would have kept back this plea.
6. But further, no class of the community will be so much benefitted by the proposed change as the liquor sellers themselves. Publicans are not a prosperous class. They suffer most of all from the peculiar evils of their trade. They are oftner in the bankruptcy list than any other trade. They are notoriously short-lived. They and their families fall victims to intemperance with fearful frequency, and help to swell the lists of pauperism and crime. In fact, any check to drunkenness, and to the number of license-holders, effected by a change of the laws, will be as much for their benefit as that of any class whatever. The privilege which they have long enjoyed for the convenience of the page 25 community has proved to society, and still more to themselves, a terrible curse. The known facility with which men part with their money when under the influence of liquor, and the consequent diversion of wealth into this demoralising channel, has proved to men greedy of gain a powerful temptation. But the penalty they have paid has been terrible. They require to be protected from themselves and from the unreasonable demands of the drinking community, who, for the gratification of their depraved tastes, require from the liquor seller a service which, in a way to an extent that has few parallels, degrades and injures those who carry it on. The only compensation that could benefit the liquor-sellers, or have a shadow of justice, would be their effectual protection from the temptation held out by the licence system to embark in a ruinous and demoralising traffic.
The London "Times" on the Licensing Bill, October 30th, 1871.
If the topics of a future session can be taken as prefigured by the topics of a recess, we might certainly anticipate a new Licensing Bill next February. Indeed, we have only to look at Sir George Grey's words last week, and we shall be led to think that of all Ministeral measures a Licensing Bill should come first. He observed that it was impossible to address an audience like that before him "without adverting to what was now on all hands admitted to be the great obstacle to moral, social, and intellectual improvement." Arguing from that statement of the case, we may certainly assume that the removal of an obstacle thus characterised ought to be one of the first objects of any Government. It cannot, for instance, be said of open voting that it is any such recognised impediment to the well-being of the people, nor is it allowed "on all hands" that a Ballot Bill will make us morally, socially, and intellectually better than we are. A Local Government Bill, again, may do the country some good if properly framed, but the want of such a scheme is certainly not the "great obstacle" to the general welfare of the community. That obstacle Sir George Grey defines as "the vice of intemperance"—in other words, the excessive consumption of spirituous liquors, and it would seem to follow, therefore, that the restriction of this consumption should be the earliest work of a Ministry in legislating for the benefit of the country. There were many objections to Mr. Bruce's Bill, but the objection made to it by the representatives of the Liquor Trade amounted simply to this—that it would page 26 do what it was intended to do. The people of this country spend in drink, we are told, £100,000,000 a year. It seems impossible to say within ten millions or so what the amount really is, but it is, at any rate, not below the figures we have given. Since Mr. Bruce's Bill was withdrawn it has been asserted that it would, if it had become law, have cut that expenditure down to £50,000,000 It was against this prospective curtailment that the Licensed Victuallers and their friends so loudly, and not unnaturally, protested. They said it was "confiscation," and so beyond doubt it; was, to the extent, in fact, of 50 per cent. A trade losing half its custom must lose half its profits, and all the capital invested in it, no matter in what shape, must be depreciated some how or other in like proportion. What the great brewers, the great distillers, the owners of public-houses, and the other members of the Liquor Trade alleged on the subject was perfectly true. What they forgot was that the result they thus deprecated was necessarily the very object of the legislation proposed. Nine out of every ten reasoning men would be prepared to say that if any measure could really reduce the national expenditure upon drink to half its present amount it would be nothing short of a national blessing. This is what any Licensing Bill must aim at, and it will be successful only in proportion as its end is attained. Yet, the attainment of the end, however devised, will practically be equivalent to the "confiscation" denounced with such vehemence last spring. There is no escaping from this difficulty, as we have said more than once, and as we now—for the whole question hinges on the point—say again. If the drink trade is to be protected against "confiscation"—in other words, against the loss of custom and profit which would attend an increase of national sobriety, it follows that "the great obstacle to moral, social, and intellectual improvement" must be left as it is. It matters nothing to the question what form the promotion of this sobriety by legislative means may take. To the same end, as regards the interests of the liquor trade, we must come at last. Diminished intemperance, however brought about can never mean anything but diminished expenditure upon drink, and diminished expenditure upon drink can never mean anything but that indentical reduction of profits which the dealers in drink have been taught to consider "confiscation."
We insist upon this topic because it includes and expresses all the grounds of that opposition which proved fatal to the last Licensing Bill, and which, it may be confidently assumed, any new Licensing Bill will encounter in its turn. One party, represented by the framers and supporters of the measure, will be attempting to reduce the dimensions of the Liquor Trade, the other will be fighting desperately for the preservation of that Trade, with its attendant profits, in undiminished proportions. That must be page 27 the real issue, and there is no disguising it. Whether the principal adopted be that of prohibition or that of control,—whether the requisite machinery be lodged with the ratepayers or left with the magistrates,—is, as far as the substantial purpose of legislation goes, of no consequence whatever. Once effect or promise to effect that purpose, and the protests of the trade will be as strong and, from its own point of view, as justifiable as ever. Every movement or meeting on behalf of temperance, every suggestion proposed in these" columns, every contribution, in short, to the question before us, has this "confiscation" for its end, and nothing else. Sir George Grey, for example, thinks prohibition would never, in this country, be either practicable or effectual, but when he proceeded to say that a "great improvement" might be made in the present licensing system he was but moving in the same direction by a different road. His proposals for increasing the stringency of control over the Trade would either be prejudicial to its profits, or they would be worthless. Nothing in the way of legislation would be effectual unless it accomplished the object deprecated by the Liquor Sellers. Every shilling diverted from the profits of the Publicans is so much loss to the trade. The diversion may be effected by teaching, preaching, influence, example, or force, but, however effected, it will come to precisely the same thing.
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