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We Aren’t Children

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Theoretically this is the Land of the Free, but don’t you believe it. In the Land of the Really Free, adults wouldn’t be treated like children. Yet all levels of government treat us like the youngest, dumbest children you can imagine.

Here are some examples, all from one state (my adopted state of Arkansas) and involving only one thing: alcohol.

Just recently a majority of voters of the city of Pine Bluff (the few that voted) decided to continue the prohibition on restaurants’ and hotels’ selling alcohol on Sundays. Why anyone who does not drink on Sunday cares if anyone else does, I can’t figure out. But that’s me. Apparently, there are enough busybodies and ministers who can’t stand the idea. As H.L. Mencken said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

It isn’t just run-of-the-mill busybodies and clergymen who would have an interest in stopping people from drinking in Pine Bluff restaurants on Sundays. Another group with an interest is the owners of restaurants in neighboring towns, such as Little Rock. I can’t prove that these people aided the busybodies’ cause, but they would be prime suspects in my investigation. Why? Because if people can’t have a drink while eating out in Pine Bluff, they are likely to do so at a restaurant in Little Rock.

This is the phenomenon that economist Bruce Yandle calls “Baptists and bootleggers.” It refers to the alliance inevitably struck between those who oppose some consensual activity for moralistic reasons and those who oppose it out of economic interest. Thus both the Baptists and the bootleggers favored Prohibition — the Baptists because drinking is sinful; the bootleggers because legal booze cut into their profits.

The second case is a state law permitting grocery stores and gas stations to sell wine — as long as it is made in Arkansas. The law goes back to the end of Prohibition and was in the news recently because for years the state’s alcohol board refused to issue permits for the wine sales. Now it has resumed doing so. Limiting sales to Arkansas-made wine is blatant protectionism. What are the local wineries afraid of? But it is just one of the many restrictions on alcohol sales. Hard liquor may not be sold in supermarkets, but only in private liquor stores. Of course, in some states it may be sold only in state-owned stores. That’s called socialism. And in Arkansas, as in some other states, counties can be dry.

Which brings me to my last example. In Faulkner County, where I live, alcohol sales are prohibited. There is one exception: special licenses for so-called private clubs are sometimes issued. This is a sham. There are eight private clubs with permits, two of them country clubs; a restaurant must charge $5 annual dues just so it can call itself a club instead of a restaurant.

Anyway, the Outback Steakhouse company wants to open an outlet in the county (city of Conway) and has applied for a club permit. Naturally, Protestant ministers and others are campaigning against it. But leading the charge is the owner of an existing steakhouse. Baptists and bootleggers once again.

Now I submit that none of this is appropriate in the United States of America. At the very least, in a free country a grownup ought to be free to drink what, where, and when he wants so long as he doesn’t harm anyone else. I didn’t say offend. I didn’t say bother. I said “harm,” as in strike, assault, murder. Otherwise, it’s no one else’s business. (As for kids, I say the parents are in charge.)

Some good small-D democrats will say that as long as the people get to vote on these rules, there is no conflict with freedom. Wrong. Freedom is not some collective right. It belongs to individuals. If a majority can vote to stop a restaurant from serving me a drink on Sundays, I’m not free in that respect — and neither are the owners of the restaurants. Voting does not sanctify tyranny.

And speaking of voting, if we grownup Americans are so incompetent when it comes to making decisions about alcohol, why does anyone expect us to vote for the best people to hold political office? Either we are adults capable of regulating our lives or we are children. Make up your minds.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.