Liquor Laws Are a Canary in the Coal Mine

Liquor Laws Are a Canary in the Coal Mine

Canary in a special cage for coal mines

Photo via Skatofix

Liquor can teach us a lot about the human condition. I’m not talking here about the wisdom occasionally to be found at the bottom of a glass of scotch upon a lonely evening. I mean that we can gain insight into where a society is and where it is going from the way it deals with alcohol. And in the modern world, this relationship is distilled (har!) in the form of its laws on the subject. One of the things we do as a race is organize, regulate, and restrict ourselves. Sometimes for the better, often for the worse. And the small subsection of this societal control that deals with alcohol is a very useful canary in a coal mine for the health of a people’s political environment.

Up until early in the twentieth century, miners carries caged canaries under ground with them. The birds sang constantly for the miners to hear. Of course, this wasn’t some primitive earbudless iPod setup to entertain them. As they delved deeper and deeper into the Earth, the miners wrapped themselves in an ever more restricted environment. It is hard for a human to detect when his or her air is failing, especially when it may be due to their own exertions.
The canaries were even more sensitive than the miners to the quality of the environment they were making. If the miners dug too deep or too narrowly, if they failed to ventilate their works well enough, the canaries would die and the music would stop. The miners would realize that they were endangering both themselves as individual and their collective enterprise. They’d leave immediately and rethink what they were doing.
Another warning that you have delved too deeply is if you release a Balrog, but I’ll leave that discussion to the patrons of this place.
Gandalf Battling the Balrog

Pictured: The perils of restricting Sunday liquor sales….

Like digging a mine, building a good civilization (one that nourishes the bodies, minds, and souls of its inhabitants) is hard, dirty, and very dangerous work. And as we build the grand and beautiful edifice of our societies we often can lose sight of the ways that we are simultaneously suffocating what made building the structure worthwhile to begin with, and eventually endangering the entire thing.

Booze makes a good canary for the the citizens who undertake this work for a bunch of reasons. First, we have had alcohol as long as we’ve had civilization. In fact, the argument can convincingly be made that making alcohol is responsible for civilization’s rise to begin with.
Secondly, I’m sure we’ve been debating alcohol’s merits since at least the Thursday after its introduction. Probably after the first time a man came home too drunk to start the fire, or perhaps unable to perform, um, other duties around the home…. Even for those of us who are proponents of drink, it must be clear that it has its dangers.
Third, the dangers of drink are clear, and easily identified in individual data, while its benefits and the harms of its absence are less direct or obvious.

The builders who concern themselves with production, be they capitalists or especially socialists, hate booze for the loss of productivity it supposedly brings. Those who are fixated upon the general health of the people hate booze for the terrible effects of its irresponsible use. Those whose concern is the strength of governing institutions love booze… for the money they can harvest from those who make, sell, and consume it. The list goes on.

In short, alcohol is an easy target. Like the canary, it is more vulnerable to the ambient danger in question than others. And by keeping an eye on its treatment, you can see dangers that you might not be able otherwise to see. Or, and this is crucial, that you might not be otherwise inclined to see.

The analogy is not exact, of course. Canaries die easily. That’s why they were used. Conversely, booze would be next to impossible to kill, no matter the heavy-handed methods of its opponents.
I get a lot of hits from the Islamic Republic of Iran on this blog. Why? Because people there want to know about building secret bars in their basements where they can drink. They flog people in Iran, just for drinking….
But while you won’t see a total death of drink, you can infer a lot about a society from what its elites want to “do about” the “problem” of alcohol. And you can tell a lot about that society by what its citizenry is willing to accept from said elites.

The impetus for all this musing is a post written by Bruce Bawer, an American expatriot who lives in Norway. His post, Cheap Spirits and the Spirit of Freedom, discusses the profound, almost painful, culture shock he encountered when visiting the US recently in the simple act of picking up a bottle of Smirnoff. You should read the post for yourself, as it goes far beyond the culture shock, but I’ll summarize the Norwegian world he had unwittingly become accustomed to before coming home and noticing the canary:

  • All wine and spirits are sold by a government agency whose name is literally “The Wine Monopoly“.
  • These stores close at six on weekdays and three on Saturdays.
  • 1.75 liters of Smirnoff will cost you right at One Hundred and Twenty Five Dollars at current exchange rates.
  • Every political body, Left and Right, in Norway thinks this is a swell way of doing things. (Except for those virtual anarchists in the Progress Party who think the stores should stay open until 8 on weekdays.)

The cruel face of authoritarian rule.

From Vinmonopolet’s website: The Cruel Face of Authoritarian Rule

All this mayhem comes from the first item in Maetenloch’s Overnight Open Thread at Moron HQ.


  1. In this “alcohol-as-indicator” vein, I feel inclined to mention that the new governor of Virginia is thinking about privatizing the state-controlled liquor store monopoly. When times are financially tough, sometimes you just gotta make the liquor more available! N’ahm sayin???

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  2. Doug

    24 March

    I’ve written here and there about Virginia’s calling in the canary veterinarians before.

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  3. Jordan

    24 March

    Here’s hoping HR1161 doesn’t get anywhere…

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  4. Doug

    24 March


    And I’d missed that 5034 had a new number and a new lease on life.

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  5. Jordan

    24 March

    Sometimes bad ideas won’t just give up and die.

    On a happier note, Oregon seems to be moving in the right direction. Even though it’s technically still a state monopoly (the retail stores are independently owned, but prices and to a degree selection are set by the OLCC), in the last few years some liquor stores have started to be open on Sundays. It’s probably only a quarter of them or so, but when you really need that one ingredient that you just ran out of, there are decent odds that you’ll be able to find it, especially since there’s a central website that you can use to search for products and stores.

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  6. David

    24 March

    Followed the link. On one side of the equation, you have universal healthcare, clean air & water, a robust social safety net, the lowest homicide rate in the world, 2d highest GDP per capita, #1 on the human development index. And very expensive booze. On the other side, you have poverty, crime, emergency rooms used as stop-gap “healthcare”, disgusting income inequality and cheap booze. Along with the “feeling” of being free (which feeling, last time I checked, is not a unit of currency my landlord accepts).

    But yeah, expensive booze – THAT’s the canary in the coal mine. Ya might want to lift your nose out of the Fountainhead once in a while and look around.

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  7. Doug

    25 March


    You also have there a microscopic population and VAST (not comparatively vast, but VAST) North Sea oil wealth that pays for all those things. They also have maintained for sixty years a very small (though HIGHLY competent) military that suffices for their defense because of the large US military presence paid for by me and (I suspect) you, which also contributes to their economy. I could go on in this vein, but my point is that if your model for a good society requires this sort of foundation, it not really a very generally applicable one, is it? In addition, Norway has been very responsible in the application of its oil wealth, a sort of responsibility that most peoples and cultures could not maintain. Note also that Norway’s freakishly high, by European standards, birthrate will likely aid in maintaining this responsibility. The Norwegian elites have shown themselves to be VERY competent at their jobs, another factor I submit there is strong evidence to suggest is not and never will be in play here or in most Western nations.

    I certainly don’t deny that Norway’s system of living is seductive, but that is the point. It is easy to find yourself letting this happen. Competent, benevolent governments do not always remain so. Natural resources are not infinite. Demographics do change. Comfortable people to not respond well to problems. The rest of the world is dangerous.

    And for the record, I have never read Rand.

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  8. goblue72

    25 March

    Sweden. Denmark. The Netherlands. Finland. Switzerland. All countries with high standards of living, high taxes, lots of regulations, universal healthcare, public subsidized higher education, clean environments, etc & last time I checked, not sitting on a big pot of oil like Norway. And, in many of them, expensive booze. And please don’t trot out that tired “oh, its because they are culturally homogenous” candard I see from every libertarian when couter-examples defeating their arguments are provided. The Swiss don’t even speak a common language and 20% of the Dutch are non-Dutch ethnically. The EU may be quite ok with having the U.S. as a military ally but its woefully laughable to think they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves without us – and to do so without spending much more money. Its a happy consequence of being a nuclear armed continent. Most Europeans would likewise find it laughable that the Norway is the only place in Europe with “competent elites” or that they can’t maintain their standard of living without making mo’ babies. Fact is, they have and continue to do so.

    Maybe there’s a reason its seductive and it doesn’t have anything to do with it being “wrong” or our system being “better.” Maybe they just figured it out and our country is run by plutocrats and their enablers.

    Stick to the booze, dude.

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  9. Doug

    26 March

    OK, let’s be clear goblue72 and David, you are responding to the post I linked at the end on my post, not my post itself. I linked it at the end because it is what got me thinking, not because it was what I was saying. If you have strong thoughts on Norway, you might want to engage in the comments there!
    My post is not primarily about how you use booze to compare freedoms between societies, but how it can be illustrative of _changes_ in freedoms within any given society (or state, etc.)

    That said… (here is where I can’t resist a fight!)
    I could address each item that goblue72 raises, but I’ll hit a few since I have NO TIME right now. I will say that you are absolutely right, they do have high taxes and lots of regulations….

    I’m not going to address the stupid “Universal Health Insurance, Universal Health Insurance, BWAAAK!” issue. I’ve found myself suddenly without insurance with a baby on the way. And I’ve had relatives experience the joy of free European healthcare. I have excellent insurance today (it’s high-deductible, genuine insurance as opposed to the service contracts you seem to think everyone should have) but I will NOT be allowed to keep it in a year or so, despite the fact that our President promised I could…. I would not trade our system for theirs, for thousands of excellent reasons. However, we’re unlikely to solve THAT ball of yarn here, seeing as how there is no discussion of it anywhere else!

    Including Switzerland on the list as representative of Europe is silly… ask any Swiss.
    As for the cultural homogeneity argument, I contend that they do have that, and our lack of it is one of our huge advantages over them, not some secret weapon of theirs.
    And various European nations suffer from considerable and growing cultural issues such as brutal gay-bashing that bug the hell out of me, but not (if you look at their political reaction) _them_.

    I’d have let the whole matter drop since it is so off topic for this blog, and even this post, except for the defense expense issue. First, if you were taught that Europe could have defended itself from the Soviet Union in the first 15-20 years after WWII, you are owed a malpractice settlement for your high school and college. At what point after that Western Europe could have managed its own defense is debatable but also MOOT. They never did and still do not.
    European militaries today are, as I said, highly competent, increasingly large, but not full-spectrum entities. Today’s spending and number of dudes with rifles and some training in using them, is growing. But no nation on the continent has the ability to defend itself or (crucially) its overseas interests. Nor really does the EU as a whole, even if it had the political mechanisms and will. You must not only have force, but it must be force you can project or it isn’t a very effective defense in this day and age.
    If Europe tired to go to war by itself with Libya right now, they would likely not be able to win.

    But as I said, this in MOOT. Because regardless of what Europe could do, the safety net you so lovingly covet has had the benefit of 60+ years of NOT defending themselves to any realistic degree.

    Finally, “our country is run by plutocrats and their enablers” and Europe isn’t? Please.
    The US remains far more free of class distinctions than any part of Europe. We retain vastly greater upward social and economic mobility. Certainly, the rich wield great power here (just ask Jeffrey Immelt), as they do everywhere. But greater freedom of expression, greater social/geographic/economic mobility, and greater personal responsibility mitigate this power. If you think that Europe isn’t REALLY run by plutocrats and their toadies, you have much to learn.

    Regardless, say on if you like. I’m probably done with it. I’ll stick to booze (and its politics thank you) goblue72, and you can stick to DKos polls about sex in football stadiums.

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