‘A Defense of Utah’s “Zion Curtain”’

bartenderAlthough it is roundly mocked in the media and elsewhere, the so-called “Zion curtain” required in Utah restaurants helps prevent alcohol-related disasters and improve public safety. It does this by discouraging something that may be hard to measure but exists nonetheless: a culture of drinking. Paul Mero, in a new essay in support of Utah’s alcohol-control laws, writes,

Over the past year or two, Sutherland Institute has argued that the “Zion curtain” law addresses a culture of drinking and, at least based on real complaints about how the law actually suppresses liquor sales and consumption in restaurants, that it actually does what its supporters thought it would do. Sutherland Institute has argued (1) there is a self-evident culture of drinking, easily observable in a bar setting, (2) this culture of drinking should not be encouraged as a matter of public safety, (3) one way to discourage this culture of drinking is to limit this culture to bar settings (to keep this culture, as much as possible, out of restaurants) and (4) the “Zion curtain” is an innovative way to dampen a growing culture of drinking in Utah restaurants.

What about a drinker’s personal liberty?

A significant irony for liberty-loving utilitarian thinkers – and a pattern of thought embraced entirely by libertarians today – is that viewing law only as an individualistic matter drives a growing police state. If law is essentially contractual, without considering law as a reflection of prevailing morals and social norms, only police have a role in enforcement, meaning increasing lawlessness only can lead to a growing police state. If, in the name of personal responsibility, laws are seen as inherently insulting to “consenting adults” and bad personal behavior (leading to harmful personal and societal consequences) is just “the price of liberty,” police work would be little more than trying to clean up a never-ending supply of garbage. …

Utahns cherish personal responsibility, and our first impulse is to “teach correct principles and let the people govern themselves.” We believe this idea deeply. Now let’s apply this idea to the neighborhood prostitute. Let her ply her trade on Main Street. She’s not bothering anyone in her isolation. Men looking for her services can find her easily and they can transact their business in relative privacy. We could argue that the prostitute and her clients are exercising personal responsibility for their choices and leave the matter at that. But what if another prostitute seeks to exercise her personal responsibility in the same matter? And then another and another? Pretty soon Main Street is filled with personally responsible prostitutes and their clients. What happens to Main Street? Does its culture change and for the better or the worse?

Remember how New York brought about a rapid decrease in its rate of major crime using the “broken windows” method of reducing disorder? Mero draws a parallel between New York’s successful suppression of crime and Utah’s restrictions on alcohol:

But does a culture of drinking, as in a bar setting, promote disorder? The fact is a culture of drinking does promote disorder. Ask any police chief in any city and they will tell you that crime is greater around a culture of drinking, such as a neighborhood bar, than elsewhere. Public drunkenness isn’t the only result of a culture of drinking – other disorders such as prostitution, panhandling, petty crimes and even more serious crime gather around a culture of drinking. There is a reason cities zone bars and “adult” entertainment – one disorder breeds other disorders. If a public disorder is permitted, it only makes sense to isolate its influence – the very same idea underlying the “Zion curtain” law. …

Is it possible that the same culture of drinking within a bar setting could begin to take the same shape within a restaurant setting as liquor laws are liberalized? And, could the same ill effects (i.e. disorder) we see in bar settings begin to be seen within Utah’s restaurants? That is, can a negative culture of drinking spread from bars to restaurants? And, if so, are there reasonable ways to mitigate that negative influence in Utah’s restaurants?

We believe there are. Click here to read Mero’s full paper.