America is known as the land of the free, love of liberty is a part of our blood, our national DNA. New Hampshire is known as the “Live Free or Die” state, and New York harbor is graced by a statue of liberty. Americans are a people who fought a bloody war of independence because England refused them the freedom to purchase printed products without state stamps, among other abuses, and place great value on their freedom. This nationalistic bravado aside, I question how much freer we really are, relative to other nations, when it comes to liberties that actually matter to common people? During my time in London, the regulations surrounding the public consumption of alcohol, or lack thereof, have given me pause when considering American liberty.
Last night, while walking down a fairly busy street, I passed between a homeless fellow and a police vehicle, just as an officer leapt out of the SUV. The car door’s sudden opening startled the homeless man, who dropped his bottle of gin, catching it a moment before dashed upon the ground. The officer, laughing at the man’s fright, warned him not to lose his liquor, because the alcohol shops had just closed for the evening. As an American, the interaction surprised me. In the states, he would have been, at the very least, threatened with jail and forced to dispose of his gin, if not beaten for resisting arrest and hauled off to a holding cell at the public's expense. In London, there are few laws against the public consumption of alcohol. A few areas are designated “Controlled Drinking Zones”, but even there most people will simply be asked to leave, and told where they may drink publicly without harassment. At the same time, convenience stores may not sell hard liquor late at night, and most pubs are forced to close at 11:00.
In the United States, laws against public drinking are far harsher, and almost all cities have laws banning the possession of open alcohol containers in public. These laws often effect the poor to a greater extent than the rich, as they are unable to afford drinks served in bars. These laws have a direct, detrimental effect upon the thousands arrested every year for daring to possess an uncapped bottle in public. During the recent NYC mayoral election, internet model Anthony Weiner was widely ridiculed for suggesting that drinking in public parks ought to be legalized. During my time in London I have attended several events in public parks in which alcohol was served. Back in the United States, this past Independence Day, I was threatened with arrest by several podunk policemen for the audacious act of stepping off my friend’s porch, Budweiser in hand, to get a better view of the fireworks. They ordered me to throw my beer away, and after tossing the beverage aside I was again threatened with arrest, this time for littering. After picking up the aluminum can, I thanked the officers for protecting my freedoms, and walked back inside. The presence of laws against public drinking infringe upon a liberty that is valuable to a great number of people, yet it is an infringement that is rarely confronted by liberty advocates on either the left or the right. Other rights, the ability to publish without fear of government retribution, are important, but there are far fewer revolutionary publishers than there are people who simply wish to drink in peace. Perhaps liberals ought to address and defend the freedoms which make life more pleasant and enjoyable for the common man, instead of only those seem as valuable by scholars and politicians. Public drinking is not the be all or end all of a liberal society, but I am hard pressed to consider a state liberal if it is willing to imprison peaceable people for consuming alcohol in sight of others.