On the Liberty to Have Happy Hours

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it is illegal for bars offer special prices on alcohol. There are no “Happy Hours”. There are no “beer of the night” deals. Never can a patron purchase a wristband that entitles them to an indefinite number of drinks. Nominally, this statutory ban on non-uniform pricing is intended to reduce the incidence of drunk driving. In reality, however, it smacks of good old fashioned Puritanical objection to enjoyment.

The only effect that the law may reasonably be considered to have on drunk driving is that it may reduce drunkenness by making alcohol more expensive. The law does not mean that a patron may not drink 6 beers immediately after work; it only means that doing so must be as expensive as drinking 6 beers at any other time of the day. Likewise, the law does not prevent a bar from selling a beer at a very low price; it only requires that the same beer always be sold for that price. Since drunk driving was already illegal when Massachusetts passed this legislation in the mid 1980’s, it is clear that this law serves a different purpose. Keeping the price of alcohol artificially high (and therefore discouraging drinking) is not only the direct result of the law, but it is also the law’s true intent.

John Stuart Mill railed against this sort of “social rights” legislation. The right of society to be free of the dangers inherent in drunk driving is not a valid reason to prohibit bars from soliciting patronage by offering discounts. If the problem is drunk driving, penalize drunk driving; don’t penalize the admittedly free and unobjectionable choice of merchants and customers to agree to a bargain.

To be fair, Mill tip-toed around this particular sort of problem. He objected to blanket prohibition on purely individualistic grounds. He acknowledged that although the consumption of alcohol is a personal right, the sale of alcohol is a “social act” and therefore (implicitly) more rightly subjected to social regulation. However, this distinction carries little weight in the current context. In the first place, I contend that the freedom of contract is improperly interfered with in the instant case. The right of merchants to offer sale prices is an inherent extension of their property rights. The right to sell beer (to persons of age and subject to other regulation) includes the right to set a price. Additionally, the this law serves the exact purpose objected to by Mill: to limit the amount consumed by individuals. True, the law does not specifically prohibit excessive drinking, but that is the only practical effect that could be hoped for.

The law against happy hour pricing relies on an “unlimited right in the public not only to prohibit by law everything which it thinks wrong, but in order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit any number of things which it admits to be innocent.” And that, as Mill would say, is a noxious philosophy.

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Beer of the week: Samuel Adams Double Agent IPL – Among the beers that Bay Staters can never drink at a discount is this local brew.  The idea behind Double Agent is apparently “what if a lager were hopped as strongly as an IPA?” The smell is much like most American IPAs. The hops aroma is strong and sweet and floral with strong citrus notes. The taste has just a hint of vanilla and plenty of floral hops and the bitterness of grapefruit rind. The beer may be a bit lighter and crisper than most IPAs, but I would never have guessed that this was actually a lager. It really is a delicious beer, but don’t expect anything but an IPA.

Reading of the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – The fourth chapter of this essay is dedicated to the relationship between personal freedom and societal duty. “Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.”

Question of the week: Mill starts this week’s reading with three questions: “WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?”

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