This week the Alcohol License Review Committee unanimously voted to approve their long trend of prohibiting gas stations from selling hard liquor.

Ask almost anyone about the ALRC’s prohibition and they will invariably focus on whether they think gas stations ought to sell liquor. Will irresponsible people drink and drive? Will it affect people’s behavior? Will it harm sales? What gas stations will be affected? Will there be exemptions? How much difference is there between beer and liquor?

No one asks the crucial question, though: What principle is involved? If local government committees are allowed to arbitrarily dictate the actions of citizens — such as where, what and with whom they are allowed to trade — what does this say about the purpose of law and government? What kind of society does this imply?

A cursory view of yesterday’s headlines paints a clear picture.

Gov. Jim Doyle wants to prod companies into producing “alternative” energies by penalizing current energy production and proposing increasing taxes to pay for a rail line. Fond du Lac County will soon tax citizens to provide special favors to Mercury Marine, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, advocates taking money from “rich” people to pay for others’ job training.

In these cases, and countless others, the unstated principle is that individuals are to be treated as pawns of the state. Whatever “society” wants, their spokesman, the state, will use its power to enforce.

If some union group wants to keep its jobs, citizens must sacrifice some of their earnings to provide them. If Paul needs job training and Peter has a lot of money, the government has a solution. If, according to Ald. Michael Schumacher, District 18, “[a gas station] is the last place we want to have any liquor sold,” then the wishes and judgments of individuals are rendered irrelevant.

Critics of paternalistic restrictions like that of the ALRC often claim that such laws will not work. People will get drunk anyway, they say, and often go on to advocate for more government intervention in the way of treatment and education programs. This misses the point.

While it is true that paternalistic laws do not work, it is not because of the psychology of the alcoholic or the gambler, but because of the destructive ideas animating such laws.

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, explains the reasoning behind restricting citizens’ access to liquor: “It’s easier to get hammered with the hard stuff than beer and wine,” and therefore “there is no support … for granting hard liquor licenses to gas stations.” The unstated premise is that individuals are neither capable of controlling their alcohol consumption nor have the right to do so. Instead, the state must intervene with “incentives,” prodding and penalties to coerce good behavior.

The destructive idea behind the ALRC and all such encroachments on liberty is that the individual is incompetent and corrupt by his nature and needs to be controlled by a wise and virtuous state.

How could individuals produce new and better energies without being prodded by politicians? How could jobs be created and new forms of transportation be funded without forcing citizens to fork over the dough?

This reasoning is dead wrong. It is the individual that must think, act and produce the values that sustain his or her life. It is the individual that must decide what to consume, which companies to invest in and what forms of energy to support. Only the individual is capable of rational thought and voluntary action.

Government can respect these facts about individuals, treat them as sovereign and protect their abilities to think and act independently. Or it can ignore these facts, regard individuals as helpless serfs and thwart their need for freedom.

America was founded on the former view of government. As Thomas Jefferson said, “A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

The next time you read about some new legislation designed to prevent someone or some group from “regulating their own pursuits,” ask what Thomas Jefferson would do. He would ask what principle is involved.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.