Nothing silly or embarrassing about Utah’s liquor laws

Alcohol_bottles_photographed_while_drunkWith what can only be described as noble indifference – the new political posture of politically correct and “tolerant” Republicans – many otherwise thoughtful Utahns have gone just plain goofy over Utah liquor laws, especially the “Zion Curtain.”

Whenever Sutherland Institute publishes any argument to further regulate liquor sales and consumption, the boo-birds come out in full force – not to argue, just to mock from their perches (far away from the “embarrassment”).

Sutherland Institute continues to emphasize the cultural and educative role of liquor policy. First, liquor is a personal and societal negative. Pertaining to character, liquor never has made any human being a better person. Never. And a free society requires that we become our better selves.

Second, liquor makes human beings less free, if being truly free requires full mental faculties. A corollary is that liquor consumption by degree makes a human being less free by degree.

Third, liquor consumption impairs cognitive judgment and mechanical skills. In the wrong place at the wrong time, liquor consumption creates public safety problems.

Fourth, liquor consumed by children is harmful to the child, especially in brain development. To dismiss the ill effects on children of the outward culture of drinking as an isolated matter for parents not only displays a naiveté about the real world, it also displays a sad ignorance of the proper role of law and government in the maintenance of a free society.

Fifth, in an aggregate, a culture of drinking can exist – such as in a bar setting. In these circumstances, most policy-makers feel fully justified in regulating a culture of drinking.

The argument over the Zion Curtain is about addressing a culture of drinking in restaurants – not in an existing culture of drinking but in a culture of dining. Again, few serious people object to regulating a culture of drinking in a bar. Oddly, though, a growing number of otherwise intelligent people fail to see how they unwittingly invite this culture of drinking into non-drinking cultures, as in a restaurant. They argue in a circular fashion that we don’t need bar-like drinking regulations in a restaurant because a restaurant isn’t a bar, so why regulate drinking in restaurants?

Now, of course, people do drink freely in many restaurants in Utah, even with the Zion Curtain. Why? If liquor is so terrible for human beings in a free society, why let anyone drink liquor? Well, some counties throughout the country don’t. We do in Utah. But the question is really an attempt to get the rest of us unreasonable people to defend a clearly unreasonable position (i.e., Prohibition) because, of course, only silly people defend that nonsense. Reasonable people understand why Prohibition failed, we’re told. It’s the economy, stupid! Right?

Well, no. It’s personal pain management. Prohibition failed as policy because people needed alcohol to help with pain management in a day and age when they didn’t have all of the pharmacology we do today. Al Capone and his friends got all the blame when, actually, the blame was with everyday people coping with extreme poverty and life’s uncertainties. If you hear a critic of Utah’s liquor laws invoke Prohibition, you’ll know that critic has nothing left except an old straw man.

Today, we live with an entrenched culture of drinking (i.e., socially acceptable everywhere) and market subcultures of drinking (i.e., bars and clubs). The end of Prohibition didn’t rid society of its ill effects – it served to enculturate those ill effects to the point now where even otherwise bright people look at liquor regulation as some anachronism.

Sutherland Institute’s position on liquor sales and consumption is clear:

  • We support regulations to reduce sales and consumption of liquor (not merely regulations regarding overconsumption and underage drinking).
  • We oppose “privatizing” or expanding the accessibility of liquor.
  • We acknowledge the private use of liquor by adults for personal purposes, including “pain management,” as well as a broad culture of drinking.
  • We support commercial “cultural” zoning of liquor – a restaurant is not a bar; a culture of dining is not a culture of drinking.
  • We prioritize freedom, child welfare and public safety over selfish individualism, monetary gain or the burdens of conducting business in Utah.
  • We support seeking just ways under the law to diminish, even hamper, Utah’s culture of drinking wherever it exists.

We also believe a few things in the liquor debate:

  • Freedom requires citizens to become their better selves – liquor doesn’t make anyone his or her better self.
  • Non-drinkers are the better judges of liquor policy because nondrinkers will be disinterested decision-makers in an area where “experienced” observers aren’t impartial.
  • Latter-day Saints should unapologetically support the aggressive regulation of liquor sales and consumption – they well understand liquor’s ill effects on families and society.
  • As Latter-day Saints, we refuse to objectify drinkers – we refuse to say that “liquor is bad for us but we lack sufficient concern for others that we actually encourage them to consume liquor if they so choose.”
  • The “limited government” argument on Utah’s liquor laws, as with so many other social issues, is juvenile (i.e., limited, lacking context, intellectually underdeveloped, selfish, etc.).
  • We do not presume that drinkers are bad people. We, who are also imperfect, make no such judgment. We are, however, bewildered by liquor advocates who deny or ignore liquor’s ill effects just to make an extreme point about some imagined liberty interest.

Sutherland Institute is under no delusion about the role of the Zion Curtain. It serves two purposes: First, it helps remind serious adults that public policy in Utah draws a distinction between a restaurant and a bar; and, second, it serves to inhibit a harmful culture of drinking (which tactic we know works, given the whining we hear about it). We realize there is no science behind how the Zion Curtain may reduce liquor consumption – culture is difficult to measure – but that was never our argument. You’ve just read our argument. But there is solid research (for progressive left and progressive right critics, that means government research) showing that a culture of drinking promotes drinking, especially underage drinking (a point made in a recent blog post of ours and understandably ignored by our critics).

What we find especially entertaining in that respect is that many LDS critics of our stand on the Zion Curtain, as a matter of culture, adorn their homes with the symbols of their faith and family – with the intended purpose of uplifting family, especially children, with these cultural reminders of goodness and decency – and yet no science exists to support those decisions. Still, they do it merrily. (We know that your private religious culture is different than a public culture of drinking – our point is about the evidently necessary “science” of culture, not whether we should pass laws about your private religious culture.)

For all of this arguing, Sutherland Institute is called “inconsistent,” among the nicer epithets. Critics ask how the state’s predominant conservative voice could claim, out of one side of its mouth, that it opposes the nanny state, but, out of the other side, endorse liquor regulations. They charge us with duplicity for championing private cultures, such as family and faith, and then apparently abandoning those private cultures in favor of government intervention. We’ve even been charged with abandoning our cause for parental rights as we supposedly replace parents with government in liquor policy.

Because we are Utah’s predominant conservative voice – because we are serious students of freedom – we teach that free markets in a free society must exist within moral and social frameworks. Only people who confuse libertarian thought for conservative thought argue that a true freedom position should allow unregulated bad behavior.

We know that culture matters and that when private cultures (i.e., civil society) break down generally, or even fail in some isolated instances, law and government exist as partners with those private cultures to reclaim the necessary balance in the moral ecology of a free society.

We know the difference between a parental right and a parental wrong; we know the difference between regulating a Mountain Dew or a box of donuts versus a liter of Jack Daniel’s. It’s unlikely that many men have consumed a box of donuts and then beat their wives, but plenty of men have consumed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and then beat their wives. We also know about competing rights and we think we’re a pretty good judge of justifiable regulation (liquor and narcotics, for instance) versus nanny state regulation (such as seat belt and helmet laws and, of course, laws against smoking in cars carrying children). It’s too bad that critics aren’t able to successfully discern these differences.

We know that the least reasonable argument against Utah’s “silly” liquor laws is that it embarrasses some residents. We don’t know how to respond to such superficial reasoning, except to say serious policy-makers would never make such arguments. Furthermore, no tourist comes to Utah just to drink liquor; it’s doubtful that our state liquor policies are the deciding factor in coming to visit – tourists can get liquor throughout the state. (We have no dry counties.) If a tourist is that upset, in principle, about our liquor laws, she has more serious personal issues.

Incidentally, Utah isn’t unique in requiring a “Zion Curtain.” Wild and woolly Wyoming has a law that alcohol in restaurants must be dispensed and prepared in a separate room from where food is served.

Sutherland Institute will continue to speak out, endeavor to educate policy-makers, and challenge inferior arguments. In this particular case, we will even raise the question of why some self-identified faithful Latter-day Saints choose to support liberalizing state liquor policies. We do this because those advocates insinuate their own LDS credentials as authority to justify liberalization – “See, even LDS people think the Zion Curtain is ridiculous.” On this point, those advocates might want to listen their church’s official representatives – not as the unilateral final word, but just logically, as a matter of counsel, as they would on so many other moral issues.

We will be candid. If an LDS restaurant owner decides one day to sell liquor in his restaurant, and then finds that decision subject to the Zion Curtain, Sutherland Institute won’t ask that owner why he waited so long to make that decision (no longer covered by a grandfather clause). We will question his choice, if he is a faithful Latter-day Saint who makes all of his own business decisions, to sell liquor at all.

As we head toward the 2014 legislative session, since our critics are so adamant about liberalizing state liquor laws, they ought to start thinking now about how they’ll stop imminent legislation (supported by Sutherland Institute) to lower the legal blood alcohol level for DUI  from .08 to .05. Sutherland Institute welcomes these public debates.

Finally, if Utah’s liquor laws serve to divide people unnecessarily, the division is not caused by citizens and their legislators who are realistic about policies to address the ill effects of liquor consumption, as well as to push back against a growing culture of drinking in the state. These divisions typically are caused by individuals who chafe at having boundaries imposed on their personal behavior – whether in the name of some imagined liberty or simply because, in this state, they don’t like the predominant culture.

As has been our experience in Utah, Sutherland Institute is confident that reasonable minds will prevail and liquor regulations will be seen as a sane measure in a free society.