Several weeks ago, Internet pundit Iain Murray described what he called "the new temperance," a movement aimed at curbing America’s alcohol habit.
Murray cited a particularly alarmist and misleading study claiming that "binge drinking" is on the rise.
Murray’s right. There is a new movement afoot, but its objectives go well beyond temperance. By all outward appearances, if the leaders of this new movement get their way, we may be headed for a modified, modernized prohibition.
By now, most of us have probably read about the situation in Fairfax, Va. There, local police have been infiltrating bars, administering Breathalyzer tests, and arresting patrons for "public drunkenness." Those arrested hadn’t incited violence, harassed anyone, gotten behind the wheel of a car, or otherwise made a spectacle of themselves. They were merely having drinks. In a bar.
In a statement reminiscent of last year’s movie Minority Report, Fairfax Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said that the aim of the campaign is to nab drunk drivers before they ever get behind the wheel. "It is illegal to be drunk in a bar," he said, "the only legal place to be drunk is at home."
Noting that patrons had blood-alcohol levels as high as .22, Chuck Hurley of the National Transportation Council said, "Nothing in the Constitution says you’re entitled to be intoxicated at those levels."
But it’s not just in Fairfax. Agitated by the Princeton Review’s recent declaration naming Indiana University the nation’s "top party school," campus police last year began aggressively seeking out and arresting students for walking home drunk. Some were arrested in parking lots just before approaching the door of their apartments. When asked if he’d rather the students drive home, IUPD Lt. Jerry Minger said, "Alcohol abuse is the problem, not the issue of whether or not you are going to drive."
And in Chicago, a city that should know a thing or two about Prohibition, 18 city precincts are now completely dry, ten of them after a ballot referendum last November that closed 42 city businesses.
What’s going on? Why have we succumbed to such a nanny culture?
Part of the problem is that neither of the nation’s two major political parties care much anymore about civil liberties.
While big tobacco and big liquor tend to support Republicans, conservatives have long lacked any moral authority to decry the practice of government dictating personal behavior because of their unwavering support for the drug war. How can the same politicians who say cancer patients ought not be allowed to alleviate their pain with marijuana argue that frat guys should be free to drink themselves under the bar?
And while liberals have long fancied themselves champions of personal freedom, they’ve been too blinded by partisanship to defend the rights of smokers and social drinkers, a position that would benefit two industries that give generously to Republicans.
Such is why bans on smoking in public facilities are on the way or already on the books in Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis and the state of California. The county council in Montgomery County, Maryland even attempted to ban smoking in private homes.
Compounding the problem are the revised agendas of once-admirable organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which carry great moral weight with lawmakers.
Because drunk driving deaths have stabilized over the past five years, MADD -- a mammoth bureaucracy with an annual budget approaching $50 million -- has had to change its tactics to remain relevant, and to keep the donations coming. MADD no longer targets drunk driving, but rather, drinking and driving, a semantic shift that suggests less attention to highway safety and more attention to social prohibition.
In fact, MADD is a vigorous supporter of random roadblock sobriety checks, a tactic used precisely because it catches people who aren’t drunk enough and are driving too cautiously to be pulled over by patrol officers. MADD has also lobbied against allowing drinking on public golf courses, in favor of heavier taxes on beer and liquor, and is pushing for a .05 blood alcohol content limit in Canada, despite studies showing that most fatal drunk driving accidents involve BACs of .14 or higher.
Liberty is rarely lost in wide swaths. Rather, it’s almost always lost gradually. You’re first prohibited from smoking in government buildings, for example. Then in public places where children are present. Then in public places, generally. Soon enough, you’re prohibited from smoking in your own home.
Our longstanding and unapologetic drug war has granted government the power to arrest us for our own private and personal peccadilloes. Nanny-statists have long advocated employing the power of the state to "protect us from ourselves." Together, the two are snuffing out our civil liberties from either side.
And the really sad thing is, it may soon be the case that we can’t even venture to the local tavern to drown our sorrows about it all.
In my last column, I stated that most federal employees were required to join the American Federation of Government Employees. That isn't the case. All government employees below the GS-9 level are bound by the union's collective bargaining agreement, but they aren't required to join, or to pay dues. I apologize for the error.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.