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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Keep your law out of my soul!

Freedom of religion is widely accepted as one of the founding principles of the United States of America. However, religious freedom was not there from the start.

Every one of the colonies had laws regarding religion. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, non-Puritans were pretty thoroughly persecuted. Quakerism (one of the most peaceful and oatmeal loving of all Christian sects) was expressly forbidden. Some Quakers were even executed by the Massachusetts Bay government for their faith.

One of the first great strides toward religious freedom in America was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson. He regarded the Statute as one of his greatest accomplishments and instructed that it be memorialized on his tombstone. (His presidency and all of his accomplishments during that period of his life are notably omitted.) In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson asserts that “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself,” so nobody should be coerced into participating in any specific church. Such a claim seems so obvious to us today that we recoil at the idea of state mandated church attendance.

What is striking to me is the analogy that Jefferson draws between the soul and the body. “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself ,” just as the care of his body and possessions belong to himself. “Well what if he neglect the care of his health,” he asks rhetorically, “Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick?”

How ironic! Jefferson appealed to the obvious freedom and sovereignty over one’s own body to demonstrate the freedom and sovereignty of over one’s own soul, but today the shoe is on the other foot. Freedom of (and from) religion seems so obvious to us, but the idea of personal physical sovereignty is constantly eroding. Imagine suggesting to Jefferson that one day the state would ban alcohol, “for our own good.” (Jefferson specifically mentions that “consuming his substance in taverns” is an activity in which every man has liberty.) Or, for that matter, the state would ban marijuana or super-sized colas. How incredulous would he be?

The fact is that a man’s body and soul, at least in this world, are inseparable. The state can’t save a man from himself physically any more than it can save him spiritually. “Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

Beer of the Week: Taiwan Beer Gold Medal – At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese rulers in Taiwan decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with tobacco, alcohol, opium or salt, so they set up a state-owned monopoly company called the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. Compare this to state monopolies on vice in America, such as state lotteries where gambling is otherwise prohibited “for our own good.” Today, however, Taiwan is a huge free-market success story and the TTL monopoly has been broken up. However, the 90 year head-start means that Taiwan Beer still dominates the market. Gold Medal is a cheap, mass-produced rice beer, so it is no surprise that it is basically bland and unappealing. The single part of this beer that stands out is the fairly distinct rice flavor. Sure, plenty of beers use rice and other adjuncts, but in this beer the rice plays a very prominent flavoring role. That is not to say that there is much flavor, but it actually is rather interesting how much this beer is unlike even other beers of its genre.

Reading of the week: Notes On Religion by Thomas Jefferson – This excerpt starts with a very interesting question: “How far does the duty of toleration extend?” This is especially important specifically with regard to religion since most religions assert that they are the one “right” religion and everybody else is not only “wrong”, but damned for it. “Every church is to itself orthodox; to others erroneous or heretical.”

Question of the week: Why has freedom of religion become so widely accepted while other freedoms have eroded?