Prohibitions

Perils of the Nanny State

Why is the state of Idaho in the liquor business and why does the Mayor of New York want to ban super-sized sugary drinks?  It’s a matter of history, tradition, politics and the fact that all politics is local. Both jurisdictions are responding to the direction of long prevailing political winds, but Idaho’s dust up over a sexy vodka label and New York’s determination to do something about obesity is also a telling tale that offers proof that neither conservatives or liberals can resist the temptation to invoke the power of government regulation in an attempt to direct human behavior.

Michael Bloomberg, the adroit and successful mayor of New York City, and Jeff Anderson, the adroit and successful Idahoan who runs the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary, normally might not have much in common. But as Hizzoner tries to crack down on sugary drinks that help fuel the American proclivity for, well, overweight citizens and Anderson polices the shelves of Idaho’s state run liquor stores to make sure state government stays on the right side of the line that defines politically correct behavior for a state-owned monopoly, both men find themselves uncomfortably straddling the fence of what my conservative friends like to call “the nanny state.”

And both men, undoubtedly well intentioned in their intentions, find themselves the subject of national media coverage for using the power of the state to regulate personal behavior. There was a pointed and funny full-page ad in the New York Times on Saturday, paid for by restaurants and food service interests and featuring a screaming headline – The Nanny – that depicted Bloomberg is a not very flattering blue dress. The Mayor, looking like an unkindly, hectoring Mrs. Doubtfire, was looming King Kong-like over the Big Apple directing the Big Government drink police.

In the Northwest, Idaho’s decision not to carry Five Wives vodka in state stores went viral. The suggestive brand is ironically distilled and sold in the Land of Zion, but won’t be sold in Idaho due to worries about the distiller’s marketing approach. The stated reason for the ban was that the product could be both offensive to women and Mormons, while doing little to drive sales because, as state officials explained, the Five Wives would be  joining dozens of other not terribly quality brands of vodka on the state’s shelves. The national press, of course, played up the Mormon angle. The vodka may never sell legally in Idaho, but the PR windfall for the Ogden, Utah booze maker has been substantial. Not so much for the Idaho liquor dispensary.

When Prohibition ended in 1933 one of the grand compromises made by Congress was to reserve to the individual states the responsibility of controlling distilled spirits. Deciding where, when, how and whether to sell hard liquor would be left to state legislators, which explains why we have 50 different approaches to liquor law in the country and why Idaho, arguably the most libertarian state in the nation, still maintains a state monopoly on the sale and distribution of  the hard stuff.

Post-prohibition Idaho opted for a high level of state control over booze. Hard liquor would be sold in state owned and operated stores during hours that, originally at least, were designed to limit sales and provide a politically sensitive nod to the state’s large LDS population. Relatively steep tax rates on distilled spirits would further help drive down consumption. Other states, Arizona for instance, opted for as little state regulation as possible. In Phoenix you can buy your hooch at Costco or at Big Bill’s Bargain Booze. (I made that up, but there are liquor warehouse stores that merchandise booze the way Home Depot sells toilet fixtures.) Some of the latest “big box” stores offer a vast selection of liquor at what often seems like discount prices compared to a “controlled” state like Idaho or, until very recently, Washington.

Because of Idaho’s historic controls over liquor, it falls ultimately to Jeff Anderson and his staff to play the role of middle man in the marketplace and make many of the decisions about the product mix and pricing available to Idahoans who are in the market for a cocktail. In Arizona and other non-controlled states that job belongs to the free market.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s nanny-isms are of a little different texture. His proposal to ban many extra large, sugary, calorie heavy soft drinks is of a piece with the Big City’s long effort at rent control and the ban on smoking in Central Park. (Wait, Boise and many other cities have the same smoking bans, but that’s another story). Bloomberg’s well-intentioned effort to do something about the epidemic of obseity in the culture - the statistics are striking - has received decidedly mixed reviews. I’m guessing the big soda ban is instinctively understood by most New Yorkers. They get the idea that too much human weight is the canary in the emergency room when it comes to diabetes, heart diesease, stroke and other bad stuff, but they just don’t want the government nanny telling them they can only chug 16 ounces at a time. It’s a freedom thing. The right to be silly and fat without the government sticking its nose into the size of your Big Glup.

You actually need to have some limited sympathy with both of these situations. In libertarian Idaho the state liquor monopoly has been, as they might say at the Supreme Court, settled law since the 1930′s. We change slowly here, if at all. Wine couldn’t be sold in grocery stores until the 1970′s and the practice of other vices – slot machines were smashed up in the 1950′s, for example – get little sympathy in the state where Hemingway once wasted his evenings at a gaming/drink joint in Ketchum called the Casino Club. Jeff Anderson does double duty for Idaho and also runs the state lottery, which only came to be because voters demanded it at the ballot box in 1986.

In libertarian Idaho few legislators have ever lost an election by voting to deny the citizens a easier path to drink or gambling. Some folks apparently just can’t be trusted with too much freedom.

And as for New Yorkers, they seem accustomed to the occasional lecture from the nanny in office who tells them you must do this for your own good because you simply can’t be trusted to police your own behavior. Conservatives do it, liberals do it, even educated…well, you get the idea.

The nanny state is far removed from notions of political consistency. A libertarian in deep red Idaho can champion the state’s tight control of booze and a liberal in deep blue Manhattan can lead a crack down on a 7-11′s soda aisle.

Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and politically speaking one man’s sexy vodka label is another man’s fat generating soft drink. I don’t drink vodka or Big Gulps, but I do enjoy the sweet, contradictory taste of a public policy that can only explain itself by wagging a finger in your face.

So, some suggestions: how about a Five Wives/Five Guys Burgers promotion. “Eat and drink politically incorrect.” Or, MacDonald’s could offer half off the big drinks for anyone who can prove their body mass index is within the safe range. Think of the possibilities for the free market. 

 

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