Monday, September 10, 2012

Free Your Minds and Free Our Beer!

[This article originally appeared on the blog on August 3, 2012]

Ask a person on any street in most countries of the world—including those Westerners consider unfree and undemocratic—whether theirs is a free society, and chances are the answer will be in the affirmative. It is a curious phenomenon, yet a very real one. This is probably so due to a combination of people’s limited idea of freedom (seeing it only as a state contrary to tangible bondage), and denial (people prefer to see themselves as they’d like to be, rather than as they are).

Simply put, people love the idea of freedom, and they like to believe that they are free. For people to see themselves as unfree is to admit personal failure with respect to an idea held so close to one’s heart. Canadians are no exception. Our attachment to the idea is proudly displayed in our national anthem, by paying homage to the “true North strong and free,” and our constitution:
            Guarantee of Rights and Freedoms
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
Fundamental Freedoms
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other means of communication.
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

As the above excerpt shows, despite a nominal pledge to freedoms, the government reserves the right to “reasonably” limit them when it deems it “necessary.” What is “reasonable” and when “necessity” arises are two questions whose answers must be aligned with the arbitrary tastes of a select minority given the authority to answer them at a given time. Such broad language is unfailingly dangerous to the governed and is rarely left unused. The temptations for social engineering and cronyism that such powers present, more often than not prove themselves all too inviting to be delivered from. So, the freedom of conscience is one that often suffers. And while in relative terms Canadians are among the freest nations in the world, we have not been safe from the tinkering with our liberties by the righteous and delusional. As a result, Canadians in general, and Ontarians in particular, despite their proud love of beer, are among the least free people in the world with respect to its production, consumption and distribution. Thus, when Ontarians wish to satisfy their desire for alcoholic beverages in general and beer in particular, they are triply struck: through excessive excise taxation, through a limited selection, and through the inconvenient distribution system where they must purchase their beloved beer through the government owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores or the privately held cartel that is The Beer Store chain.

The Temperance movement that had been working on abolishing alcohol from North America for the better part of the 19th Century finally got its wish in the early parts of the 20th. While explicitly the movement’s goals were higher morals, in fact it simply wanted to keep “the wrong kinds” of Whites (Catholics in particular) out. In other words, the move to ban or restrict alcohol was steeped in racial, ethnic and religious intolerance—quite contrary to the Constitution Act’s 2nd Article. Alas the reader need not worry, since most pundits and intellectuals—be they “conservative” or “liberal” leaning—will tell him that Ontarians are not troubled by such hypocrisy, since “responsible” distribution of alcohol is something that represents “our” values and that these restrictions are for “‘our’ own good.” It should come as no surprise that Ontario’s restrictive alcohol retailing system was established during the heyday of the Progressive era. This was a time of great social engineering. Leading the push to Prohibition in the US was one of the worst economists of all time, Irving Fisher, whose idea of stabile prices seemed to have been only a subdivision of a greater vision of a completely sterile and immobile society. Canada actually spearheaded the Prohibition of alcohol as early as 1916, only to ease the policy by the tightly regulated retail system still in place today.

Apparently the Ontario Convenience Store Association (OSCA) as well as another 112,500 and counting other Ontarians didn’t get them memo on what their values are. Through the “Free Our Beer” campaign these confused (with respect to their values) Ontarians are making an attempt to petition the present Provincial legislature to further abandon the relic of bigotry that is the alcohol retail system in Ontario by allowing their stores to sell beer and wine. Even if this effort is successful—and at present there seems to be no indication that it is—it would represent but a baby step toward full beer freedom in Ontario. While supportive of the attempt, this author is not optimistic concerning its success, as there are forces too powerful to defeat.

First, and foremost among these is Ontario’s healthcare system which is funded largely by the aforementioned excessive excise taxes on alcoholic beverages in this Province. While the convenience stores association is not simultaneously calling for a repeal of these taxes, a shift to sales away from the tightly held system is sure to drain tax revenues away from the provincial government. One only need look at tobacco product sales to anticipate what is likely to happen with booze: the artificially set high prices are sure to encourage the development of smuggling operations. And while I have no qualms with bankrupting OHIP, those in government are sure to have a differing sentiment. Therefore, OCSA’s claim that “[l]ast May the OCSA unveiled an independent, third-party mystery shopping study that showed convenience stores were the best at age checks—better at denying sales of age-restricted products to minors than the foreign-owned Beer Store and the government-run LCBO,” is likely to have little impact on the decision-makers at Queen’s Park.

Likewise, the results of the mystery shopping study are unlikely to persuade that second powerful opponent of liberty—the omniscient paternalists—to get behind, or at least not work to block the initiative. As far as they are concerned, all people—except themselves, of course—are evil, rotten, ignorant idiots, who need constant supervision. On top of being a strong voting bloc—which represents further discouragement to those at Queen’s Park to side with the OCSA—they tend to be vocal, and beloved by the media. Thus, not only do they take the time from their busy schedules of petitioning for STOP signs, lowering speed limits, increasing industrial safety standards, keeping various weeds illegal—while prohibiting the destruction of dandelions, “supporting our men and women in uniform” etc., to write their local newspapers, TV and radio stations—but, the local media outlets love publishing their unsupported claptrap.

Thus, they tell the public that allowing convenience stores to sell beer and wine will definitely increase the rate of convenience store robberies. Likewise, they say that the addition of booze in stores will push out necessary products that consumers value more highly. Here are examples of the misuse of the principle of ceteris paribus if there ever was one, for, who is to say that the convenience stores will not install better security in their stores, or will not add more square footage. Nor do the proponents of such fallacious ideas consider that those products that are more highly valued by the consumer are also the products that are dearer to the seller, for they earn his bread. There’s no room for reason in paternalistic thinking, no time to ask “Why would convenience store owners drive business away if it is to their own detriment?” Lastly they say that making beer more easily accessible to the public will drive instances of alcoholism. They are of course, the Holier-than-thou spiritual heirs to the intolerant Temperance movement, and as such, they have a hotline with God. There is no point in reasoning with them that repressing alcohol sales has been proven to increase its potency; or explaining to them that prior to the Prohibition the most common alcoholic beverage in North America was 2% beer, while during Prohibition it was 40-50% hard liquor.

The third powerful force against alcohol freedom in Ontario is represented by the alcohol distributors. Over the years they have built relationships so cozy with the LCBO, that it is virtually impossible for new entrants to join the market. Unlike cigarettes, where four large companies dominate the world market, alcohol production is far more diverse, and those who have a piece of the lucrative Ontario market are less than willing to take a chance on the free(er) market. On the other hand, The Beer Store chain is owned by four large breweries which unsurprisingly favour their own products. Allowing convenience stores to retail beer and wine is sure to break the alcohol sales cartel in place in this Province. Again, while this author wholeheartedly approves of cartel-busting, he does not see it likely to happen.

In conclusion, the “Free Our Beer” campaign’s demands are quite weak compared to all that is wrong with the sales of alcoholic products in Ontario. At the same time any progress toward more freedom is better than none; and ridding ourselves of relics of ethnic and religious intolerance as public policy is always welcome. Yet, while the “Free Our Beer” campaign is rather tepid in its declared goals, too much is at stake for the provincial government and the beer distributors to allow for any chinks in its armor.

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