Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In Defense of Blue Laws

Right now, in the Kansas Legislature, there is much debate about proposed legislation that would allow grocery stores like HyVee and convenience stores like QuikTrip to sell hard liquor. The proponents, largely made up of convenience stores and grocery stores, have put together a group called the "Coalition for Jobs and Consumer Choice" to advocate for this change.

The arguments that proponents are using for this bill are these:

Economic Impact. They argue that it will create 15,000 new jobs by spurring the creation of new convenience stores.

Current Law is a Monopoly for Liquor Stores. They argue it is not defensible to have a built in protection for liquor stores, and they say half of which would go out of business, according to this article.

Consumer Choice. Simply, this argument states that consumers should have the choice to purchase hard alcohol at a grocery store and not be forced to purchase it separately at a liquor store.

Blue Laws are Old Fashioned. This is an argument you often hear out of the more libertarian thinkers, who would make the argument that blue laws such as the current law are anti-liberty and anti-freedom and a relic of prohibition, and thus should be repealed. Basically, this is the "people drink anyway so why have the law" argument.

In the opinion of this blog, all of these arguments are solid and some are even true, in varying degrees. However, it is also our opinion that these arguments do not alone justify the change in the law, nor do they take into account the significant justifications for "blue laws" such as this.

In our view, there are significant cultural and even economic arguments for maintaining the law as is, and that socially conservative legislators would be wise to listen to the arguments of the Kansas Family Policy Council, which opposes the legislation.

Our arguments are as follows:

- The economic benefit is overstated. As stated in this article, it seems a stretch to say 15,000 new jobs will be created simply by changing this law. Will a grocery store or QuikTrip really add jobs simply because booze is available? Seems doubtful. While some convenience stores may pop up (as if there are not enough already) as a result, the proponents admit that around half of the liquor stores would close as a result, thereby slashing jobs and ending the livelihoods of hundreds of small business owners in Kansas. Is this really a good idea, at this time? (more on that in a minute)

- Even if there is economic benefit, it is not worth it. In order for there to be a true overall economic benefit to Kansas, the proposed change would have to result in the increased purchase of alcohol. This is likely to occur given that it would be readily available at places like HyVee and Quik Trip. Do we, as a state, and do Kansas legislators really want to encourage the increased purchase of hard liquor? Yes, we recognize there is a "libertarian" argument as to whether it's the government's business to regulate this anyway -- we'll talk about that in a moment.

- To be consistent, a social conservative should oppose this bill on cultural grounds. Many of us might remember the 2007 all-night debate over expanding gambling in the state of Kansas, which passed narrowly. Certainly, there were some who were opposed to the bill not because they were opposed to casinos, but to state-owned casinos. But, there were many social conservatives who made arguments against it on moral and societal grounds, and made impassioned pleas on the House floor, with readily available data which stated that expanded gaming in Kansas and proximity to a casino has a negative overall impact on families in Kansas. Similarly, many conservatives also oppose sex shops or at least support severe restrictions on there whereabouts and ability to advertise, also on the societal/family argument. Certainly, social conservatives would have to agree increased consumption of hard alcohol would have a negative impact on families and on individuals, period. One need only look at the dozens of studies on alcohol abuse or hear the testimonials of those who struggled with alcohol addiction to know that the availability of alcohol is a serious struggle. So, to be consistent, conservatives should also oppose laws which would increase the availability and temptation to purchase hard alcohol.

Of course, some proponents will say that it is available now, and that is very easy to purchase alcohol from a liquor store. That's true, but that isn't our point, as we are not advocating prohibition. What we are arguing is against increased availability of a product which clearly has a negative impact on families and our culture as a whole, which leads us to our next argument:

Kansas shouldn't promote alcoholism by encouraging the purchase of hard liquor. As a general rule of thumb, a state should not pursue policies which will encourage the increased purchase and sale of extremely harmful products, particularly when consumed in even mild excess, such as hard liquor. Clearly, this law would make hard liquor more available. That's the intent. Clearly, it would result in more consumption of alcohol; otherwise there would be no economic benefit. And while, yes, right now it is easy to walk into a liquor store and purchase booze, any person is much more likely to enter a QuikTrip or a HyVee on any given day than a liquor store. As such, that person is much more likely to purchase the bottle of hard liquor -- not only on that specific visit to the store, but also on repeat visits, as many people stop by a QuikTrip or a grocery store on a daily basis. As such, It isn't too much of a stretch to argue that this change would promote alcoholism by encouraging the repeated purchase of alcohol, particualrly given the severely addictive nature of hard alcohol, and the struggle many individuals have with abusing alcohol and the temptation to "fall of the wagon".

There is a negative economic impact on families. A great deal has been made about the economic benefits and potential job creation that could occur as a result of this legislation. Maybe so. But on the back of who? In an economic downturn such as we are in right now, it is families who are in the most stressful of situations, struggling to make ends meet while one or both try to find a job. It is in high stress situations alcohol is more likely to be consumed, and thus the availability of alcohol at a HyVee would make it all the more likely a husband, wife, parent, etc, would purchase that bottle of hard liquor instead of allocating that money to food, bills, debt, or other family needs. Given, again, the highly addictive nature of hard alcohol, have we truly considered, as a state, the negative economic impact this would have on families? While certainly, there is a large personal responsibility quotient to this, and the state cannot police everyone's behavior, it also should not be promoting said behavior. Point is this -- HyVee's economic benefit might be a family's economic devastation, particularly one struggling with alcohol addiction. We should choose families, first.

It's not fair to liquor stores. Yes, an argument can certainly be made that the current law protects liquor stores by allowing them to monopolize the sale of hard liquor. Fair enough. But, it is not the liquor store owner's fault that the law exists as it is. Given, again, the economic state we are in presently, is it really a good idea to change a decades-old law when the advocates of the change even admit it would close over 300 liquor stores? Like it or not, this is the law on the books and has been for a long time. While that doesn't necessarily mean we should not change it, it certainly would represent picking some some already existing winners (grocery stores and convenience stores) and some non existing winners (convenience stores that MIGHT open as a result) and losers, the long-existing liquor stores which would cease to exist. If this is going to be the centerpiece of a conservative's argument for changing the law -- perhaps it would be a good idea to at least wait until there was an economic upturn.

There is justification for the liquor store monopoly on hard liquor. Some economic conservatives will say there should the state should not protect the monopoly liquor stores have on selling hard liquor, which of course, as noted above, keeps many in business. That's a fair argument. However, sometimes, in law, created "exemptions" for an industry is wise -- often because of the very nature of the product or service. Major League Baseball, for example, has a federal antitrust exemption. Cable companies, often, have monopolies on service within a particular area, or in some cases, it's at least limited to two companies. In this case, we feel the nature of hard liquor justifies its "special product" category and sale at liquor stores only. The reasons are largely along the lines of what we stated above (the addictive nature of the product, the harm done if consumed in excess, etc) -- but also this -- there is an argument that hard liquor is okay for special occasions. Certainly, there is an argument to be made that is what hard liquor should be reserved for. By requiring a special trip to a liquor store to purchase it, we are emphasizing that the "special occasion" principle, and not something akin to a gallon of milk, a box of cereal, or the item typically found at a grocery store.

If we're going to get serious about our culture, we have to get serious about alcohol. Conservatives like to talk a lot, justifiably, about the protection of families and the importance of the culture in America. That's why we're conservatives, and not libertarians. That includes promoting a culture of life, protecting and enhancing marriage, restrictions on gaming, and the war on drugs. Even apart from any government action or solution, we want vibrant churches, quality schools, curriculum which reflects our values, and a society which encourages wise decision making. In all of this, sadly, there is a large elephant in the room and that is the ever presence of alcohol.

To be clear, this is not a case for prohibition, as that is not feasible nor does it work. However, that does not mean that we should be scared to examine not only governmental solutions but also not fear talking about this issue from a hearts-and-minds perspective as well.

One need only to go to any college campus or read any study or attend any athletic event to witness the profound impact alcohol has on our culture. And not just alcohol -- but the heavy consumption of alcohol. Even in our anti-drinking-and-driving campaigns, we seem to say that drinking excessively itself is perfectly okay, as long as you don't get behind the wheel -- nevermind the fact that excessive alcohol usage impairs good decision making nor the fact that excessive alcohol usage can have a destructive impact on one's life and family.

One has to, pardon the pun, be drunk as a skunk not to realize the fact that excessive alcohol consumption leads to depression, unwanted and teenage pregnancy, divorce, poor grades, destroyed families, auto and boating accidents, and too often, the injury or death of innocents. No further study needs to be done on this -- the negative impact of alcohol on culture is readily apparent and the evidence is ample -- in divorce proceedings, in college dropouts, in teenage pregnancies, and too often -- in the morgue.

Conservatives like to talk a great deal about protecting families and life, and justifiably so. But if we're going to seriously talk about improving the culture, we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room and that is alcohol. Yes, it will be a hard fight to win and a difficult discussion to even have, because so many people consume alcohol and so many people consume it regularly. Even those who consume it lightly still consume it -- and it's hard to be the one advocating against alcohol on one hand while having a glass of wine on the other. No one wants to be labeled a hypocrite.

Thus, no one, not religious, not moral, and certainly not political leaders whose parties and fundraisers are often fueled by booze -- wants to carry the flag on this issue. Even when it comes to resisting the increased availability of HARD liquor, it is hard to find a leader in Kansas who is willing to stand up and speak loudly on the issue.

That's not to say it's not a tough issue, it is, particularly as it pertains to specific laws such as the one in question here. There are legitimate "liberty" and limited government arguments for loosening these laws. But, in our eyes, those do not equal the incredible piles of evidence that weights against expanding the availability of hard liquor. And no matter what happens, it should not preclude us from having a broader, more long term cultural discussion about the impact of alcohol on our culture.