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Drunk with reverence

There is an interest in this article that Chesterton would readily grasp. Beer was among his favorite human things. The grasping tyranny of big rationalized profit-making corporations was among his least favorite human things.

Or again, the virtue of the common Englishman was among his favorite of all human things; and the corruption of that virtue was among his most detested.

Or again, the private and English ownership of the means of English beer production was among his favorite things; while the distant and abstract ownership of the means of production of beer in England, we may surmise, was among his least favorite.

“… And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.”

Well, there ain’t much reverence left in the world nowadays; or maybe it is that there is too much reverence — for unworthy things. Deep within the murk of that tiresome épater le bourgeois material which forms the presuppositions of the cultural Left, one now and then notices an extraordinary fact. The Left is full of puritans and busybodies: despots of peculiar prudery. Nanny Bloomberg exerts his pedantic will to strictly constrain the dire public menace of large sodas. From the pages of antique Leftist periodicals, we find men fulminating like the most self-righteous puritan divines of 17th century Massachusetts, against the excess and vice of Wall Street. Nor do our Leftists, so hair-trigger to observe the cadence of Scripture or a prayer in school, deign to object when a tedious preachment citing “faith without works is dead” or “the least of these,” implies with terrific pedantry that endorsing the welfare state must be an iron article of faith for all true Christians. (That last phenomenon is treated with near perfection in Hunter Baker’s “Secularists Sit One Out in the Bible Belt.”)

And here in Washington Monthly we have a very well-written and engaging report on the consolidation of the adult beverage industry, which is framed around a plea for temperance set up by the object lesson of a Great Britain prostrate and inebriated by wicked beer corporations.

It is not altogether clear (certainly this article does not even enter into a rational argument for the idea) that cheap, corporate, rationalized beer is truly at the root of the corruption of English virtue. The English have certainly increased their alcohol consumption to alarming levels. Public intoxication is a major problem, along with the concomitant lawlessness, brutish behavior and sexual misery.

But it is curious that so puritanical a tone is taken as regards English drunkenness, with so little reflection on the proposition, which here appears more as a presupposition, that cheap corporate beer is the cause of English drunkenness.

Skeptical readers might share Chesterton’s prejudices for English and for all local beer, might well share his outrage at virtue subverted, might even share his instinctive suspicion of the big rational corporation: might share all these things and still be at a loss as to why we should suppose that it is the parsimony of beer prices, and the vertical integration of beer firms, that mostly accounts for English alcoholism.

This is indeed the presupposition of the article. England is sinking under drunkenness; and this is laid at the feet of the business enterprises that produce liquor. Moreover, this whole tale of corporate consolidation issuing in alcoholism is presented as an object lesson for America and her beer industry.

There is no hint of attention to dissolution of the family, to the millions of children who lack fathers who acknowledge their existence, much less undertake to protect them against demon rum. There is no mention of the squalor of pop-culture. There is not a word about the celebrities who drink themselves to death or prison in their 20s. No, it’s the producers and suppliers of beverages who have by ruthless maneuver sunk the people in vice.

Were a churchman to rise and exhort the men to temperance, he might be greeted with sneers and annoyance. I suspect that few liberal folks would warm to a public call from public men to engage not “in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” But let the same exhortation be couched in terms of public health, and adorned with an alluring tale of industrialism run amok, and suddenly the modern liberal is all ears.

Chesterton could easily elucidate, however, how virtue (or its want) is of a piece. We can no more expect an insensately promiscuous people to discipline themselves against strong drink, than we can expect a drunk to resist a temptress. A man who enjoys his vices in explicit defiance of older norms, is hardly one susceptible to moral reformation by pedantic lectures on healthy living. He who rejects strict moral discipline is unlikely to endure strict hygienic discipline. (Los Angeles tested this proposition when it passed a law requiring prophylactic hygiene for pornographic actors, which has touched off an ostentatious revolt against the oppressive and liberty-destroying law. The pornographers have threatened to take their business elsewhere.)

So the old exhortations must one day fall on attentive ears, and penitent hearts. Reform of the political economy of drink will be preceded by contrition and moral reformation, or it will never come at all. When the old admonitions — “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness, let it not even be named among you,” “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” — when these admonitions begin again to be heeded, the global beer corporations may suddenly find renewed resistance to their marketing lies. When liberal politicians return to the moral seriousness of the young Abraham Lincoln, lecturing earnestly and subtly on temperance, without even proposing new laws or health regulations, then perhaps progress against alcoholism and hooliganism will commence.

For the man suddenly, or in any other way, to break off from the use of drams, who has indulged in them for a long course of years, and until his appetite for them has become ten or a hundred fold stronger, and more craving, than any natural appetite can be, requires a most powerful moral effort. In such an undertaking, he needs every moral support and influence, that can possibly be brought to his aid, and thrown around him. And not only so; but every moral prop, should be taken from whatever argument might rise in his mind to lure him to his backsliding. When he casts his eyes around him, he should be able to see, all that he respects, all that he admires, and all that he loves, kindly and anxiously pointing him onward; and none beckoning him back, to his former miserable “wallowing in the mire.”

Thus Lincoln, a young Whig at 33 years old. That sort of classical liberalism has perished. Instead we have Nanny Bloomberg and the dour ministers of pedantic public health, recently provided by national legislation a fuller compass for their intrusive ministrations; which shall undoubtedly prove largely impotent against old serpents of consumptive sin.

Comments (25)

The liberal politicians in the UK, and those in Ireland echo them, think they only need to raise the price of alcohol to reduce consumption; they don't comprehend that these young people have become so debauched that their primary ambition every weekend is to 'get hammered' which is the fashionable expression for being drunk out of their minds, and all that entails, with overwhelmed casualty departments and indiscriminate sex. If the alcohol is made more expensive they will simply satisfy their appetites with more ingeniously potent cocktails (where my generation drank pints of beer, of which a stomach can only have limited capacity, the present one consumes pints consisting of combinations of hard spirits, sweetened with sugary mixers for palatability, which could knock a horse),or do like their colleagues on heroin, and turn to petty crime to fund their habit. Society is reaping what it has sown.

My mother used to tell me that her whole family - Dad, Mum and late teenage daughter, used to frequent the local pub often, and certainly as often as once a week - this in the 40s. Dad would have a pint, Mum a gin and "it" and daughter an orange squash! It truly was the hub of the community. Chesterton had it right. The family was all important. Take that away and the pub becomes a place for aimless young men to get slobbering drunk. A place from which they roam, seeking an outlet for their frustration and lust.

Any man who is found to have abandoned his family should be flogged on the steps of his club.

First, I would bid thee cherish truth
As leading star in virtue's train;
Folly may pass, nor tarnish youth,
But falsehood leaves a poison stain.

Keep watch, nor let the burning tide
Of impulse break from all control;
The best of hearts needs pilot-guide
To steer it clear from error's shoal.

One wave of passion's boiling flood
May all the sea of life disturb;
And steeds of good but fiery blood
Will rush on death without a curb.

from "Stanzas To The Young" by Eliza Cook

That sort of classical liberalism has perished.

What would a classical liberal even be called today?

Daniel, by most liberals a classical liberal would be viewed as a flaming reactionary orthodox conservative. Of course, most of them don't know squat about history, either, so they would be glossing over lots of distinctions. Now, there's lots of reactionaries who don't know their history, but at least they don't embrace change for the sake of change alone as if there were some virtue in that.

I like the poem, Step2. I like that Barbara woman too.

Barbara, I wonder about that. I am fine with an establishment designed for sociable drinking. But the historical evidence at least for the last 150 years seems to suggest that most such places were mostly given over to men, and were mostly viewed as places of poor repute and poor influence on morals. In the old West, of course, decent women kept out of saloons. Even in the East, though, it was similar: the Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893, but was pre-dated by other more grass-roots movements. Of course that league was devoted to getting rid of alcohol altogether, but I think they chose to name the organization from the common view of saloons as places of poor behavior, not family-friendly, community-centered social venues. Even as benign a depiction as James Herriot's stories in Yorkshire in 1930's shows pubs as places mostly for men, though women were taken there on dates. Family groups would be rare.

In my experience, I don't ever recall any retail establishment in which it was socially frowned upon to exceed 3 drinks, and (again, in my experience) anybody who exceeds 3 drinks isn't doing so for any laudable social purpose. Places specifically devoted to drinking tend to encourage (de facto, if not by explicit design) drinking that doesn't restrict itself to socially beneficial limits.

It's interesting that Tony should mention the Herriot books. Those books bring home to a middle-class American the very large place that getting drunk apparently had in the lives of otherwise respectable Englishmen as long ago as the 1930's. And I do not mean simply _drinking_ but actually getting drunk. When Herriot's second child is born, he and his friends go out quite deliberately and get drunk.

When people get drunk in the books, nobody does anything bad. No destruction of property, no sexual impropriety. They just look silly, are brought home or get home somehow, and feel sick, usually both on the night of the drinking and the next day. It never sounds like much fun, upon reflection. But they always go and do it again in a few chapters.

I like the books very much and have unhesitatingly given them (with due warnings, including "Don't start using the language that these guys use; they swear a lot") to my kids. So I'm not actually being prudish about them. But I would say that the continual portrayal in British literature of drunkenness as simply funny (and it's a theme that comes up again and again in a variety of authors, sometimes with the explicit statement that Englishmen are tolerant of whatever someone does "in his cups") has probably not been entirely a good thing for English culture.

Tony :

Daniel, by most liberals a classical liberal would be viewed as a flaming reactionary orthodox conservative.

OK, then how would most conservatives today view a classical liberal?

Daniel Smith: I'd say the simplest explanation would present a classical liberal as one who antedates the ascendance of socialism. Once socialism gained hold of the liberal mind, the whole climate of liberal opinion shifted hard against individual liberty and free enterprise.

It is also useful to keep in mind an insight from James Burnham: most of the classical liberals were to our eyes anti-statist precisely because the state they knew was quasi-aristocratic or monarchical -- they were deeply skeptical of the power of the ancien regime. Extrapolating their anti-statism to the modern-day technocratic welfare state is a rather tricky operation. The sad fact is that once the pressure of socialism began became inexorable on the Left, most classical liberals became social democrats or socialists.

Labeling Lincoln a classical liberal is decidedly problematic, but less so, I would say, in his early Whig years.

Paul, the main post is very insightful. Christianity, because it is addressed to the whole man, has the potential to keep people from debauchery and drunkenness. Mere "public health" tsk-tsk-ing, much less so.

One might think that a counterexample is the fairly successful campaign of demonization and discouragement, without outright outlawing it, against smoking. But I think there are differences. For one thing, the anti-smoking campaign has been accompanied with a lot more actual _rules_--place after place becoming non-smoking, often by city ordinance. So there has been a somewhat more top-down aspect to the anti-smoking campaign than to any attempt to discourage drinking that I know of. (Which just goes to show that top-down campaigns do have some effect!) Moreover, I don't think the peer pressure on young people to smoke is as widespread as the peer pressure to drink. Nor the peer pressure to be unchaste.

It is that peer pressure that the secular public health Nannies are up against. What I've read indicates that the peer pressure to lose one's virginity is so great in itself that a non-negligible number of college girls deliberately get themselves drunk *so that* they will get over their inhibitions and behave unchastely, which evidently is thought "cool." This sounds like about as much fun as hitting oneself in the head repeatedly with a large hammer, and the fact that they do it is a testimony to the power of peer pressure to get kids to do things that are neither good for them nor much fun. (The devil don't pay good wages.)

To set against the power of that combined culture of drinking and sex mere rants against greedy capitalists or mere fussy "health and wellness" lectures is futile. Something deeper and broader is needed. Indeed, from a sociological perspective, it _needn't_ even be something true. Communism would probably work to make men truly committed to the Cause chaste and sober, because it is a totalizing pseudo-religion. But what definitely won't work is what the leftists are trying.


Can you give any examples of "classical liberals" who became socialists or social democrats?

The assertion you make about classical liberalism morphing into "modern" liberalism is often made, but I have never seen it persuasively demonstrated.

Also, whatever the case was in Europe, the state in American was never quasi-aristocratic.

The argument has been made that the "plantation aristocracy" approximated the function of an aristocracy in at least some circumstances. There are massive differences of course, and no one can overlook them.

This article argues that the problem with the alcohol industry is that it's making alcohol so cheap that it's too easy to drink enough booze to cripple an elephant. Then it goes on to say that the big problem is that the alcohol industry is being monopolized by a couple of big players--Anheuser Busch ImBev and MillerCoors. I always thought that the big problem with monopoly was that the monopolist can set prices *higher* than the price that would prevail in a competitive market.


I asked "what would a classical liberal be called today?"

Tony says that today's liberals would view a classical liberal as a "flaming reactionary orthodox conservative".

You say that classical liberals "became social democrats or socialists" (i.e. today's liberals).

My view is that a classical liberal, today, would be called a "Libertarian".

There is no consensus then on the answer to my question.

Daniel, I was saying what I thought today's liberals would think of someone like James Madison, transported to today. Of course, today's liberals often think SOME of today's libertarians are flaming reactionaries, though plenty of other libertarians are considered fellow-travelers not quite with the program.

Somewhere in Paul's thinking should raise the specter of those "progressives", the Woodrow Wilsons and his ilk, who were convinced that not only could government right nearly all ills, but it was government's job to do so. I don't know if they were a distinct breed and a stepping stone to the socialists and social democrats, or merely the same wolf in different clothing.


I knew you were talking about today's liberals (so was Paul).

My question was not really about what today's liberals would call a classical liberal but more generally where a classical liberal would fit into today's political spectrum. I've often heard Libertarians described as "to the right of conservatives fiscally, to the left of liberals socially". Is that an apt description of where a 'classical liberal' would fit today? (IOW, is today's Libertarian a 'classical liberal'?)

There is a need for a critique of Chesterton's critique of Capitalism.
That is, was Chesterton right in pointing out the evil of a great concentration in Property and that the great combines that go under the banner of Free Enterprise pose a danger to Property ideals of Catholicism?

There is a Chesterton remark to the effect that an enterprise that lits up sky in its advertising banner can not claim the privileges of Private Enterprise.

This captures the Chesterton's critique in a way that eludes the American Conservatives. They fail to understand it. They have a simplistic Govt Bad, Business Good -attitude that is inadequate to deal with political implications of Big Business.

They do not realize that the Commanding Heights of the Economy must ever be Coordinated with State, since the State is charged with General Welfare.

Such as petroleum, coal, electricity, transport and communication networks, currency, food production (in a centralized economy) .
In America now, banking and finance represent the Commanding heights and we do see that how well they are coordinated with State.

The Conservatives are more reflective than you think. The essence of a true Conservatism, in my opinion, is grasping the fact that avoiding one supposed "evil" isn't in itself good if only to fall into a greater one as a consequence. Chesterton was a romantic who "condemned the society (and, in this case, the economy) of their day, which they contrasted unfavorably with the utopia they imagined to have existed in the Middle Ages." Romantics will be the death of us all.

It is pretty likely that "the creation and maintenance of a distributist economy would have required state action on a scale that, given Chesterton’s and Belloc’s arguments against socialism, would have violated their own principles."


It isn't that effective, even devastating, Conservative critiques of Chesterton's view haven't been made. It is that romantic understandings of history are so deeply embedded and familiar in the minds of many that they are not looked for.

Chesterbelloc operate with the Catholic understanding of what Property is and what it is for. The usual criticisms, coming from Mises and other economists miss the point entirely.

The Austrians pride themselves of knowing the engine of prosperity. But can an Austrian society last? or would it be like a Communist society, doomed to stumble and collapse in a couple of generations?

The Economists start with individual autonomous men in a state of nature, and trading and acquiring ownership over unowned resources.
But this gives a false picture of reality. In reality, there are no individual autonomous men in a state of nature but men bound by mystical ties that define nations and these nations, occupying certain territories, define a state of laws within them.

The Catholic understanding proceeds not with isolated individuals but with the whole community of individuals.

The Economists, Austrians or otherwise, take Consent to be the ultimate arbiter of justice. This again is not the Catholic position.

The specific comments on the linked article I will post later.

"condemned the society (and, in this case, the economy) of their day, which they contrasted unfavorably with the utopia they imagined to have existed in the Middle Ages." Romantics will be the death of us all.

But no libertarian or Austrian ever condemned the society or economy of his day, or imagined a better economic structure?

Let's see, Lincoln had a lot of good things to say about labor unions, which are now bankrupting the country; and he seems for all the world to have been grasping toward a Marxian labor theory of value: he must be a dangerous thinker to emulate. Heaven save us from romantics!

The biggest head-scratcher of that Independent Review article (which was fair enough as far as it goes, though it hardly goes as far as Mark would like) was the focus on Chesterbelloc arguments against the enclosures in Britain, with so little discussion of the chief grievance behind it all for those men: namely the dispossession and hounding of the Catholic Church by Protestant rulers bent on plunder. One doubts that the Catholic Thomas Woods (one of whose books I reviewed favorably) has much good to say about that accumulation of capital.

But no libertarian or Austrian ever condemned the society or economy of his day, or imagined a better economic structure?

We all condemn things. The authors of the review aren't objecting to that, they are objecting to the basis of the comparison upon which the condemnation is based.

Let's see, Lincoln had a lot of good things to say about labor unions, which are now bankrupting the country; and he seems for all the world to have been grasping toward a Marxian labor theory of value: he must be a dangerous thinker to emulate.

Nothing should be judged by its abuse. We all have praise for things we see as partly or mostly good in this fallen world, but then if the balance shifts into excess of a quality where it is no longer seen as good we change our minds. And then changing circumstances cause some things to just lose their usefulness over time. Surely all can acknowledge this.

My limited experience of Chesterbelloc rants against enclosures indicates that they are...misguided, to say the least. I don't see how saying that the (illegal) dispossession of the abbeys "lies behind" some subsequent enclosures really tells us much at all about the _economic_ ideas and the economic story the Chesterbelloc crowd want to tell about the evils of enclosure. If the free market writer Thomas Woods deplores the spoliation of the monasteries (and I see no reason why he shouldn't), I would guess that he does so on other grounds than the grounds of the Chesterbellocian crowd and, therefore, that his being Catholic would provide no important economic common ground between himself and them regarding the significance or evaluation of those episodes in history.

Chesterton was a huge fan of Cobbett, and Cobbett holds the very peculiar (and to me endearing) distinction of having written among the most furious of all anti-Reformation screeds, himself being a Protestant! Who can fathom the truth-telling misanthropy in his History of the Reformation in England? But the predatory nature of the whole thing is clear enough in Britain, and God bless Cobbett for telling a hard tale about his own church.

Anyway, for Daniel Smith, I incline toward the view that the classical liberal phase was a passing one. It held history's attention for a handful of generations, aided by the unique achievement of America; and then it vanished from the earth.

On this view there is no application to political actors of today. It's not within the realm of political possibility anymore.

Whatever be the historical errors of Chesterbelloc, to me they appear prophetic regarding the Financial Capitalism of late 20C.
They warned against people at large losing Property, and the Economists answer employee stock options!
The economists miss that the anonymous property of stock options, mutual fund units etc is not the Property Chesterbelloc have in mind.
The property relation is not of material benefit alone and there are psychological and social factors that are crucial when persons are publicly and stably attached to real property.
A mutual fund unit holder can never as invested as a proprietor and thus a society of unit holders lacks a certain stewardship relation that the owership was established to maintain (as per Catholic doctrine).

Also, a critique that frequently cites Mises is hardly a conservative critique since Mises would have rejected the conservative label as applied to him.

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