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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The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.

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Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.


Brewers and Patriots… and Jesus

There are those who will tell you that the Founding Fathers were not really Christians and that they never meant for the United States to be a “Christian nation.” It would seem, however, that at least one was fairly Christian and seemed to think the rest of the nation was or ought to be.

In 1777, after the Continental Congress had moved from Philadelphia to York, Pennsylvania because of the invading British army, things looked fairly bleak to some of the leaders of the revolution. However, by the end of the year, the rebel cause met with some success and this prompted Samuel Adams to propose what was to be the first national day “for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE.” He, in committee with Richard Henry Lee (who had introduced the resolution that led to the Declaration of Independence) and Daniel Roberdeau, introduced a legislation setting aside a day so “That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor.” Sounds pretty Christian, right? But that’s not all. The holiday was also established so that “they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins” and pray that they be forgiven “through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST.” That guy?! What’s he doing in there?!

Anyway, Sam Adams and his ilk sat at home and prayed all day. Presumably, some other people did not. At any rate, Providence (or superior tactics and greater dedication due to ideological and personal motivation) granted victory to the colonists. And with the invention York Peppermint Pattie over 150 years away, the young government moved to new accommodations. They bounced around a bit and “experimented” with Confederation, but finally settled down in a swamp. The government founded there, or rather, the remnants of it, are still in that swamp. And they’ve kept holiday but abandoned the meaning.

Needless to say, the blatant Christianity would find no place in Washington today. But Jesus is not the only part of this Proclamation that has gone by the wayside. Modern politics has been reduced to platitudes and pandering, leaving no room for the ideals laid down by the founding fathers. No pundits ask candidates about their plans for “cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety.” No serious nominee has room in his platform for “the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

Don’t worry, there are still some “Christians” in Washington. Unfortunately they want to tell everybody else how to live. And they’ve also hung on to another part of this Proclamation: asking God “to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War[s].” So much for “INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.” Thanks, guys.

Beer of the Week: Samuel Adams Boston Lager – When an upstart Massachusetts brewery wanted a name that evoked thoughts of tradition and reliability, Sam Adams was the right choice. The man basically founded the traditional American holiday. He had also been a brewer himself, so the choice was a no-brainer. As for the beer itself, there is a reason it has grown so successful so quickly. The beer pours a light amber with a good, off-white head. There is a nice touch of earthy, bittering hops on the nose. The taste is driven by the hops and there is a bit of lingering sweetness. All in all, a very nice, classic lager.

Reading of the week: Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1777 by Samuel Adams in committee with Richard Henry Lee and Daniel Roberdeau – The first of many Thanksgiving Proclamations written by Samuel Adams ends by recommending that everybody take a day off of work. But it also advises against any recreation which might be unbecoming “on so solemn an Occasion.” So no touch football after dinner.

Question of the week: Many Christians acknowledge four purposes for prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, contrition and supplication. The Proclamation specifically mentions each of these four, (even naming adoration as “the indispensable Duty of all Men”,) so why should the holiday be called “Thanksgiving” instead of “Adoration” or either of the other options? Or,even better, why should there not be four separate holidays? “Supplication Sunday” has a nice ring to it.