Archived Story

Why draft beer matters

Published 9:38pm Wednesday, May 7, 2014

By Daniel Sutter

The Troy City Council approved the sale of draft beer in April.  I shall henceforth celebrate April 24 as Draft Beer Freedom Day, not because I’m really thirsty, but because draft beer nicely symbolizes the personal freedom issue.
Alabama has a personal freedom problem.  Political scientists Will Ruger and Jason Sorens and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University rate the states on economic and personal freedom.  Alabama ranked a respectable 5th in 2011 on state and local taxes and spending, but 43rd on personal freedom, yielding an overall freedom ranking of 21st.  At least personal freedom is trending in the right direction in Alabama, up from 50th in 2001.
America was founded on the principle of freedom, meaning voluntary interaction between people regulated by property rights.  Our economists with the Johnson Center emphasize freedom in markets for the production and exchange of goods and services, but freedom does not easily compartmentalize into distinct economic and personal spheres.  Free people should be able to work in jobs of their choosing, not pay too much of their earnings in taxes, and have a draft beer after work.
The Mercatus Center personal freedom measure considers, among others, alcohol, education, gun rights, asset forfeiture, and drug laws.  While most of us value our own freedom, restricting others’ freedom often makes us personally better off in some way.  Restrictions on others’ economic freedom can often produce a financial gain, while restrictions on personal freedom help prevent, or at least hide from view, offensive behavior.  Restrictions on personal freedom can be attacked on moral, practical and economic grounds.
The government of a free nation exists to protect citizens and their property.  Although the use of alcohol and drugs might offend some, consumption does not violate others citizens’ rights.  (Drunken driving or injury following consumption is another matter.)  Libertarian political philosophers offer the non-initiation of force principle to demarcate permissible personal actions and legitimate government action.  The principle says that consenting adults should be free to do anything which does not involve violence against others (self-defense is allowed though).  Libertarians do not claim that indulging all of these freedoms leads to happiness, only that using government force against people exercising these freedoms is wrong.
The case of medical marijuana illustrates the ethical case for personal freedom.  Many medical professionals believe marijuana helps some cancer patients with chemotherapy, making its medicinal use literally a matter of life-and-death.  Legalizing medical marijuana certainly allows some people to get bogus prescriptions, but is preventing this minor increase in recreational use really worth the lives of cancer patients?
Laws restricting personal freedom often fail to achieve their stated aims.  Many alcohol restrictions were promoted to control underage drinking or drunk driving.  States formulated restrictive distribution systems after the repeal of Prohibition, yet stricter distribution controls or steep taxes have no effect on alcohol-related auto accidents, underage drinking, or binge drinking.
The War on Drugs was launched by President Nixon over forty years ago, and also illustrates the folly of restrictions.  Failure in the drug war has not been for lack of effort.  The U.S. spends $50 billion annually to fight the war, and 1.5 million persons were arrested on non-violent drug charges in 2012.
Restrictions on personal freedom also hurt economic growth by making a state a less desirable place for some to live.  Political scientist Alan Ehrenhalt notes that Americans since the 1950s have become unwilling to accept limits on their lives.  Economist Richard Florida finds that “creative class” workers who drive the knowledge economy simply will not live in a city or state where local laws or customs preventing things permitted elsewhere.  States with more personal freedom as measured by the Mercatus Center had significantly more in-migration from other states between 2000 and 2010.  And drug laws saddle many nonviolent persons with criminal records, making it difficult for them to participate fully in the economy.
Alabama offers generous tax incentives to attract businesses like Mercedes, Hyundai and Airbus to the state.  More personal freedom would also help attract businesses.  To this end let me raise a glass to toast our city leaders for a step in the right direction.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

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