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Vices Are Not Crimes - XX.
Written by Lysander Spooner   
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But some persons are in the habit of saying that the use of spirituous liquors is the great source of crime, that "it fills our prisons with criminals," and that this is reason enough for prohibiting the sale of them.

Those who say this, if they talk seriously, talk blindly and foolishly. They evidently mean to be understood as saying that a very large percentage of all the crimes that are committed among men, are committed by persons whose criminal passions are excited, at the time, by the use of liquors, and in consequence of the use of liquors.

This idea is utterly preposterous.

In the first place, the great crimes committed in the world are mostly prompted by avarice and ambition.

The greatest of all crimes are the wars that are carried on by governments to plunder, enslave, and destroy mankind.

The next greatest crimes committed in the world are equally prompted by avarice and ambition; and are committed, not on sudden passion, but by men of calculation, who keep their heads cool and clear, and who have no thought whatever of going to prison for them.

They are committed, not so much by men who violate the laws, as by men who, either by themselves or by their instruments, make the laws — by men who have combined to usurp arbitrary power, and to maintain it by force and fraud, and whose purpose in usurping and maintaining it is by unjust and unequal legislation, to secure to themselves such advantages and monopolies as will enable them to control and extort the labor and properties of other men, and thus impoverish them, in order to minister to their own wealth and aggrandizement.[4] The robberies and wrongs thus committed by these men, in conformity with the laws — that is, their own laws — are as mountains to molehills, compared with the crimes committed by all other criminals, in violation of the laws.

But, thirdly, there are vast numbers of frauds of various kinds committed in the transactions of trade, whose perpetrators, by their coolness and sagacity, evade the operation of the laws. And it is only their cool and clear heads that enable them to do it. Men under the excitement of intoxicating drinks are little disposed, and utterly unequal, to the successful practice of these frauds. They are the most incautious, the least successful, the least efficient, and the least to be feared, of all the criminals with whom the laws have to deal.

Fourthly, the professed burglars, robbers, thieves, forgers, counterfeiters, and swindlers who prey upon society are anything but reckless drinkers. Their business is of too dangerous a character to admit of such risks as they would thus incur.

"Men can endure but a certain amount of misery before their hope and courage fail and they yield to almost anything that promises present relief or mitigation — though at the cost of still greater misery in the future."Fifthly, the crimes that can be said to be committed under the influence of intoxicating drinks are mostly assaults and batteries, not very numerous, and generally not very aggravated. Some other small crimes, as petty thefts, or other small trespasses upon property, are sometimes committed under the influence of drink by feebleminded persons, not generally addicted to crime. The persons who commit these two kinds of crime are but few. They cannot be said to "fill our prisons"; or, if they do, we are to be congratulated that we need so few prisons and so small prisons to hold them.

The State of Massachusetts, for example, has a million and a half of people. How many of these are now in prison for crimes — not for the vice of intoxication, but for crimes — committed against persons or property under the instigation of strong drink? I doubt if there be one in ten thousand, that is, one hundred and fifty in all; and the crimes for which these are in prison are mostly very small ones.

And I think it will be found that these few men are generally much more to be pitied than punished, for the reason that it was their poverty and misery, rather than any passion for liquor or for crime, that led them to drink, and thus led them to commit their crimes under the influence of drink.

The sweeping charge that drink "fills our prisons with criminals" is made, I think, only by those men who know no better than to call a drunkard a criminal; and who have no better foundation for their charge than the shameful fact that we are such a brutal and senseless people that we condemn and punish such weak and unfortunate persons as drunkards as if they were criminals.

The legislators who authorize, and the judges who practice, such atrocities as these, are intrinsically criminals; unless their ignorance be such — as it probably is not — as to excuse them. And, if they were themselves to be punished as criminals, there would be more reason in our conduct.

A police judge in Boston once told me that he was in the habit of disposing of drunkards (by sending them to prison for thirty days — I think that was the stereotyped sentence) at the rate of one in three minutes, and sometimes more rapidly even than that — thus condemning them as criminals, and sending them to prison without mercy and without inquiry into circumstances, for an infirmity that entitled them to compassion and protection, instead of punishment. The real criminals in these cases were not the men who went to prison, but the judge, and the men behind him, who sent them there.

I recommend to these persons, who are so distressed lest the prisons of Massachusetts be filled with criminals, that they employ some portion, at least, of their philanthropy in preventing our prisons being filled with persons who are not criminals. I do not remember to have heard that their sympathies have ever been very actively exercised in that direction.

On the contrary, they seem to have such a passion for punishing criminals, that they care not to inquire particularly whether a candidate for punishment really be a criminal. Such a passion, let me assure them, is a much more dangerous one, and one entitled to far less charity, both morally and legally, than the passion for strong drink.

It seems to be much more consonant with the merciless character of these men to send an unfortunate man to prison for drunkenness and thus crush and degrade and dishearten him and ruin him for life, than it does for them to lift him out of the poverty and misery that caused him to become a drunkard.

It is only those persons who have either little capacity, or little disposition, to enlighten, encourage, or aid mankind, that are possessed of this violent passion for governing, commanding, and punishing them. If, instead of standing by, and giving their consent and sanction to all the laws by which the weak man is first plundered, oppressed, and disheartened, and then punished as a criminal, they would turn their attention to the duty of defending his rights and improving his condition, and of thus strengthening him, and enabling him to stand on his own feet, and withstand the temptations that surround him, they would, I think, have little need to talk about laws and prisons for either rum sellers or rum drinkers, or even any other class of ordinary criminals.

If, in short, these men who are so anxious for the suppression of crime would suspend, for a while, their calls upon the government for aid in suppressing the crimes of individuals and would call upon the people for aid in suppressing the crimes of the government, they would show both their sincerity and good sense in a much stronger light than they do now. When the laws shall all be so just and equitable as to make it possible for all men and women to live honestly and virtuously and to make themselves comfortable and happy, there will be much fewer occasions than now for charging them with living dishonestly and viciously.