Alcohol wholesalers have enlisted Mormon Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to lead their quest for passage of anti-competitive liquor legislation during the 112th Congress [see a copy of the bill here].
Chaffetz is most likely a well-meaning guy who believes he can promote virtue with policies that make alcohol less accessible and more expensive. Publicly, he says that a federal alcohol law is necessary to protect “states’ rights.” Yet both views are wrongheaded.
First of all, representatives of the National Beer Wholesalers Association—the main force behind the bill—are not interested in virtue or states’ rights. They want government-secured profits. Accordingly, the bill is an attempt to grant states greater authority to regulate alcohol distribution to ensure that all—or at least most—sales go through wholesalers. As a result, consumers may eventually see fewer opportunities to order wine online or direct from wineries.
It’s foolish to believe that this legislation could serve any goal other than one of wholesaler special interest—let alone promotion of virtue and states’ rights.
After all, most people understand that true virtue requires the opportunity to make choices; you can’t merit grace by government regulation. Aristotle explained this well in Nicomachean Ethics: Virtue is “a state of character concerned with choice.” In a nation where the free exercise of religion is paramount and values differ across a wide spectrum, individual choices and ideas of virtuous living will vary.
For some of us, our virtuous choices involve abstaining from certain things. For Mormons, that means abstaining from alcohol. Likewise, devout Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. But if meat were illegal, that personal sacrifice would mean very little.
To be fair, Chaffetz has not focused on religious opposition to alcohol—although that angle might play well to Mormon constituents in the state—when he’s made public comments on the bill. Wholesalers call for regulation in the name of temperance, which is surely ironic (and laughable) given their line of business.
Chaffetz focuses on the legislation’s alleged defense of a constitutional principle. In a press statement on a similar bill last year he noted:
“I want to preserve states’ rights to decide the appropriate regulation of alcohol within their borders ….. Most importantly, the bill preserves the status quo on Utah’s unique regulatory regime and reaffirms the presumed validity of Utah’s laws.”
On a side note, if wholesalers are really looking for rational liquor laws, Utah is certainly NOT the model. The state has some of the dumbest alcohol laws on the books. For example, it is illegal to walk around in a bar with a glass of eggnog during the holiday season! The law says you must drink alcohol at your table or standing next to a bar.
But more significant, the Utah government has a complete monopoly on retail sales–something that pads the budget and pays salaries of many, including Mormons, working for the state. For some reason, moral concerns have not been raised about that reality. As a result of the monopoly, you can be sure that wholesalers have a very close relationship with government officials in charge of liquor sales, which surely must help also with their representatives on Capitol Hill.
This reality must be a bigger factor than states’ rights. In fact, as I explained in my Daily Caller article yesterday, federal liquor legislation has little to do with states’ rights. In fact, it flies in the face of basic constitutional principles. James Madison explained in Federalist No. 10 that a key purpose of government is to control the impact of “factions”—i.e., special interests—through a system of checks and balances. In Federalist No. 45, Madison explained that most powers remained with states, but that the Constitution granted Congress–rather than the states–the power to regulate commerce as a critical check in the system. The idea of having Congress cede some of that power to allow special interest-protectionist state laws is simply absurd.