An article at LewRockwell.com today provides, with libertarian clarity, an example of a basic vice of liberal and libertarian thought. One of their writers complains about opposition to a local measure to extend the hours of liquor sales. For him, opposing such a measure is the same as “telling the voters … to their faces, that they were untrustworthy, that they could not make their own choices competently.” It is a display of “the arrogance of people who consider themselves a special breed apart, the only people capable of acting with prudence or decency without having the government’s gun to their head.” It is that arrogance, he says, that is the basis of statism.
Actually, of course, it’s nothing of the kind, it’s just recognition that no man is an island. Many people think they’re better off if they don’t have sweets and desserts constantly available. Why shouldn’t a group of people, like a town, have somewhat the same thought about liquor? It’s hard to see an effort by a local government to limit the constant immediate availability of liquor in some not-particularly-burdensome way as alarming. It’s the sort of rule a privately-owned gated community might well adopt. Since that’s so, where’s the threat to liberty and evil oppressive spirit when a local government—which serves functions like those of a homeowners’ association—does the same thing?
Where the article goes wrong, along with libertarian and liberal discussions of social issues generally, is with its understanding of human action. We don’t simply decide what we’re going to do based on pure individual desire and reason that applies the same in every possible setting. How we live depends on how others live, and conversely, and how we all live depends on what’s possible and readily available, and what therefore becomes habitual and the way things are expected to be done. That’s notably so in connection with drinking, which is usually social and festive, and so conventional, and is mixed up with things that dull the critical sense (like drinking itself, or having some laughs with friends).
If I go to a party, throw a party, or just have friends over, what I’ll want to do is going to reflect what people are used to and expect in that setting. Why pretend that will have nothing to do with the general availability of alcohol? And if it has something to do with that, why is it irrational to think the general outcome might be better if the availability is restricted than if it’s wide-open? That expectation might be wrong in a particular case, but so might any other practical political measure.
The liberal and libertarian attitude toward human conduct, that it’s a matter of arbitrary non-social preferences that are independent of background and social setting, carries over to all situations. For example, it dominates discussions of sex ed and AIDS prevention—abstinence can’t work, because people do what they do, and the only rational way to approach the problem is technically, through devices and techniques that minimize the troublesome consequences of things that people are going to do in any event. It’s also reflected in attitudes toward social conventions, rules and controls in general. There’s what I want and what other people want, and the two have nothing much to do with each other, so the alternatives are to let me do just what I please, and a comprehensive system of explicit controls, backed by penalties, to force me to do something else. Hence the fondness of liberals for comprehensive systems of bureaucratic regulation, and the horror of both liberals and libertarians at any discussion of public morality. They really do consider such discussions a sign of impending radical theocracy.