G. K. Chesterton once pointed out the intellectual legerdemain involved in the prohibitionist case against “alcohol.” Nobody, Chesterton observed, drinks “alcohol,” and nobody wants to. People drink beer and wine and whisky and brandy and frozen daquiris and piña coladas. “Alcohol” is merely some chemist’s fancy, an attempt to render uniform drinkers’ diverse behavior by identifying a common ingredient in what they drink. This is not a trivial point. We may not understand why someone chooses to drink, but it is a step away from understanding to deny that he has made a choice at all and instead to buy the chemist’s story about how a mythical monster called “alcohol” has enslaved him.

The same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of “violence.” The word is torn from its natural context and made to stand on its own as a new bugbear to haunt the liberal...


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