Mero Moment: Where I Would Draw The Line

State Representative Ken Ivory has championed an idea he calls “Where’s the Line?” – meaning where do states draw the line with the federal government? What aspects of federalism are appropriate relationships between states and the federal government and what aspects are not?

Most freedom-loving people point to the United States Constitution for answers. Our Constitution enumerates federal powers and, basically, leaves all other powers and authorities to the states and to the people to decide. One of the long-established grievances many people have in this respect is that the federal government has overstepped its bounds. Many legal scholars suggest that these encroachments began when the United States Supreme Court applied the Bill of Rights to the states after the Civil War. From there the court created an open season on states and individual rights with all sorts of judicial interpretations on things like interstate commerce and rights to privacy.

Deciding where we draw the line between federal and state governments is a vast sea of legal theory and political philosophy. In our own lives we see this question of “where do we draw the line?” play out a bit differently but with no less intensity.

Our state Legislature recently held a hearing on expanding the days that state liquor stores can be open. In this case, the proposal was to allow state liquor stores to open on holidays. The state representative making the proposal argued that people like to drink on holidays and to close those stores is simply unreasonable. This legislator raised concerns such as the loss of state revenue and the inconvenience to out-of-state travelers who would be surprised that the stores are closed when they go searching for liquor.

So where do we draw the line in this case?

We heavily regulate liquor. There is no state interest in encouraging people to drink alcohol, even if some people argue that booze revenue is in the state interest. Because we’re faced with broad consumer demand for a highly destructive product, we regulate it. But to what degree? The proposal in committee was defeated when it asked to open state liquor stores on all holidays. It passed when the bill sponsor amended her proposal, limiting openings to just a couple holidays.

I’m not arguing liquor laws here. I’m posing a serious and recurring question: where do we draw the line? Why is opening state liquor stores unacceptable for all holidays but acceptable for some holidays? Why is driving 55 mph acceptable but driving 56 mph is breaking the law?

In that committee hearing, an opponent of the proposal was questioned by a state legislator about seat belt laws. Seat belt laws save lives. Limiting liquor sales and consumption saves lives. The witness was known for opposing seat belt laws but favoring liquor regulations. Why the difference?

My answer would have been that seat belts don’t impair my driving judgment, liquor does. In other words, as serious as death is, public policy in a free society should focus on freedom. When liquor impairs judgment, it impairs freedom. I’ve never met a drunk who I felt was a rational and free man in that moment. Hence, I would regulate liquor as heavily as I could. A seat belt law doesn’t make me a better driver. It’s simply a decision made for us by the state. Consuming liquor can easily forfeit a consumer’s personal responsibility even as the person thinks he’s making an adult decision. No matter the wisdom of wearing seat belts, the state is taking away someone’s personal responsibility by passing such laws. And that’s where I would draw the line.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.