The Kansas Chamber of Commerce again presented a plan earlier this year that attempted to liberate grocers in the state to sell wine and liquor. Soon after, they presented a bill to the legislature, hoping to liberalize the state’s regulation of alcoholic beverages. This is a regular occurrence, although it’s entirely unnecessary, given the recent history of alcohol legislation in the state of Kansas. If all of this seems strange to you, allow me to provide a little context.
Kansas has a storied history of alcohol prohibition; it was the first state to enact such a government program. Voters first moved to prohibit alcohol in 1881, and such restrictions continued until 1948 when again, a majority of Kansans voted to lift some prohibitions. Of course the 21st Amendment was adopted fifteen years prior, but that was of no concern to the legislature, who never considered the amendment, and to this day has not ratified it.
Carrie Nation made a name for herself in Kansas, helping to start a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. She began with harassing saloon owners and consumers of alcohol and within a short period was destroying their property. Wielding a hatchet, she would march into a saloon and attack the bar, before smashing as much of the stock as she could, to prevent the consumption of alcohol. Nation claimed to have been called to do this, and during her career of “hatchetations,” as they came to be known, was arrested dozens of times.
Prohibition continued, albeit to a limited extent, for decades. “Blue Laws,” or the restriction of certain business activity, in this case alcohol sales on Sunday, were in effect until 2002. Until this time, Kansas was one such “dry state.” As it turned out, the law wasn’t initially changed at the capitol in Topeka; it all got started at more local levels of government.
Kansas’s neighbor to the east, Missouri, had long-since repealed its Blue Laws. Liquor stores were free to open on Sundays, and grocery stores could freely sell wine or liquor as well. So residents along the border in Kansas would just drive across the state line to do their shopping. As expected, liquor store owners in Kansas complained they were losing business. It was also suggested that lifting the restriction would provide additional sales tax receipts for various government agencies, too. Everyone would win. Nevertheless, the ban continued.
So in 2002 the Wyandotte County board of commissioners placed the issue on the ballot. That November, voters passed a measure — which openly subverted the state law — allowing Sunday sales. Not to be left out, other cities along the state line soon followed. It then became easier for folks living in parts of the state further from the border with Missouri to buy booze on Sunday. Soon enough it was no longer an issue, as the state government was completely impotent to hold back the many municipal governments and counties determined to liberalize alcohol sales. Despite being defied by subordinate layers of government, state officials no doubt enjoyed the results. Legislators would reap additional sales tax revenues and not have to face opposition from the major lobby organizations involved, namely from the grocers and liquor store associations.
It has been suggested that such a method ought to be employed in order to lift restrictions on retail establishments in Kansas. In addition to grocers being prohibited from selling greater than 3.2 ounce beer, liquor stores may not sell any product that contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol. So for instance, if you live in Kansas and want to have margaritas with dinner, you’ll be forced to make two trips. First, to the liquor store for tequila and margarita mix (provided they sell an alcoholic variant). Next, you’ll have to swing over to the grocery store for salt and limes. Not very convenient, of course, but it serves the interests of the stores involved.
Over the years the market became adept at circumventing this barrier, as it always does. Lew Rockwell explains that: “The leviathan state is the great enemy of American prosperity, the monster that devours wealth. Every bit of economic growth that we experience is due not to the presence of this leviathan, but to the ingenuity of American enterprise in getting around the barriers.” He was referring to the federal government, but any coercive institution that seeks to control human behavior in this way will fit.
In brilliant form, the liquor stores have found that by opening “party shops” adjacent to their buildings, or even by partitioning the existing floor plan, they can skirt this law and thus offer one-stop service. Say you wanted beer and pretzels for the game on Saturday. You would first have to buy the beer in the liquor store. Next, you would follow the same employee to the other side of the building, to the party shop, and be wrung up on a separate register, under a different entity and a distinct tax identification number.
In years past it was comparatively simple to add such a wing to sell tobacco, soda, and snacks. It’s not so easy now, as these loopholes (read: pockets of freedom) were tightened. Still, for some shops this does work. I once spoke with the manager of a liquor store in Kansas about this process, who explained some of these convoluted laws and regulations concerning liquor sales. She told me the regulatory agencies have prohibited them even from selling mixers for specialty drinks, unless they have a minimal amount of alcohol, as mentioned above. So in true market fashion, the producers of drink mixes began supplying some blends with alcohol, in order to allow the liquor salesmen something to offer legally.
This is another of the cases that always strike me by how quick and innovative the market is at working around obstacles put in place by the government. Of course the nullification of the state’s laws is great, too. It’s a far better method than spending time and resources petitioning the state legislature, as the decades of this demonstrates. It’s not unlike the voices of Very Serious People, to borrow a phrase from Glenn Greenwald, who seek to control public opinion regarding nullification. They want us to stick to the tried and true method for losers – pleading with judges and voting – or else quit complaining.
Instead, cities and counties should just start passing ordinances to free grocers and liquor store owners, whether the state wants them to or not. And this doesn’t only have to be about booze in Kansas. Anywhere a particular group is using the coercive power of government against otherwise innocent behavior, nullification is the answer.
There’s no moral argument in support of prohibiting one store from selling a particular product, and restricting another store to selling only a specific one. At least in this case it’s all utilitarian arguments about how many jobs the liquor stores will lose, or some other contrived economic reasoning. Grocers should be free to sell wine, liquor stores should be free to sell pretzels, soda, or whatever else they want to willing customers, and that should be the end of it.
This issue in particular doesn’t affect me directly, since I don’t drink alcohol. In terms of liquor sales and consumption I couldn’t care any less how easy it is to come by these things. However, the indirect consequences are considerable. I’m offended that various interests are free to form alliances and collude to use the power of the State (at any such level) to enrich themselves and find protection from competition. This sort of rent seeking is not only damaging to the economy as a whole, but it should violate the moral sensibilities of everyone.
The benefits of going local are many. An obvious advantage this gives someone interested in expanding freedom is that it doesn’t require long distance travel or the accompanying expenses. For those who live in a large state, such as California, traveling from somewhere near San Diego to the capitol in Sacramento is a long haul, seven hours one way. But a trip to the county seat or a visit to city hall can be done in much less time. Speaking before these bodies, or supporting those who are, is now much easier.
There are also far fewer members to convince. Finding a majority may only require a dozen or so votes, instead of the fifty or one hundred votes that are often necessary at the state level. Ballot issues also take less effort, and they’re just as effective, as we see.
These local endeavors greatly increase the ability of individuals to vote with their feet. Moving from one city or county to another is much easier than relocating interstate.
These ordinances are going to be more likely to reflect the values of the community in which you live. This is not to say that you won’t face opposition, or that everyone will be happy with the outcome, assuming you succeed. We’re still dealing with government. However, the smaller scope is to a degree less intrusive than state or federal level programs.
It’s entirely likely that in a free society towns or neighborhoods will prohibit certain behavior that is otherwise non-violent. This will be done on a voluntary basis, not unlike neighborhood covenants which prescribe standards of home maintenance. In the absence of a coercive body imposing restrictions on entire areas, neighbors will decide the terms of living in their community, and this law will become dynamic, changing with the needs of those who live under it. Local ordinances aren’t a perfect analog for this private law, but they’re a step in that direction, and at a minimum, are less imposing than when applied to millions of people.
So let’s say you’re facing entrenched, dedicated opposition to nullification by your representative or senator. Or maybe yours are on board, but can’t get anything out of committee. Forget it. Don’t waste any more time or effort trying to convince him that history, logic, or human freedom is on your side. Go local. You might be surprised how powerful a tool this can be for restoring some pockets of freedom.