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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Nanny State: Then and Now

Before the war on tobacco, there was the war on liquor. The Ontario edition:

Ontario’s government-owned liquor monopoly operated bleak little dispensaries that had all the allure of an all-night pharmacy. No actual booze was allowed to be displayed, for fear the merest glimpse might turn solid citizens into a blubbering mass of addiction. You elbowed your way up to utilitarian counters with display boards that listed the limited products deemed acceptable for purchase. Using stubby little pencils, you scribbled down the name and code of the offending brand, then stood in line with similarly sad-sack individuals and handed your little list to a disapproving civil servant, who sent someone off to fetch your bottle and wrap it in a brown paper bag so as not to alarm any passing school marms or Sunday school teachers.

Kelly McParland is exaggerating only slightly. This is how liquor was sold in Ontario in the middle decades of the twentieth century:

Between 1927 and 1962, customers were required to obtain a permit to purchase alcohol and fill out an application or "purchase order form" whenever they made a purchase. As part of their mandate to control sales the LCBO used these permits to track and regulate the drinking of permit holders. Between 1927 and 1958 all of an individual's liquor purchases were recorded in their permit and LCBO venders were to review past purchases for evidence of excessive drinking or spending before making a sale. If permit holders were found to be abusing their "privilege" to purchase liquor they were added to an LCBO Blacklist called the Interdiction List and it became illegal for these individuals to either possess, purchase or be sold liquor. The LCBO also used the purchase order form to track which employees were involved in excessive sales or other unscrupulous behaviour.

This totalitarian approach to alcohol collapsed upon extensive contact with southern European immigrants, and their easy access to "grape juice." It is one of the strange ironies of history that the Anglo-Saxon peoples, the great upholders of freedom, should have had - and still have - this irrational obsession with controlling alcohol use.

The war against drink is, of course, the great precedent for the modern anti-trans fat activist and general-order health nazis. There is some puritan instinct in the English speaking soul that objects to people having fun and possibly - heaven help up - misbehaving. This is the inverse of the southern European attitude.

Centuries worth of authoritarian Latin governments weren't particularly interested in regulating people's fun, just every other aspect of their lives. Generations of Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians did not think twice about religious and political dissents being tortured, beaten and once upon a time even burned at the stake. Yet their descendants found to their shock that in Canada, one of the freest nations in history, they couldn't have a glass of wine in their backyard without having to look out for the cops.

Here's my guess at the origins of this absurdity. The Anglo-Saxon mind is - however many steps removed - still a protestant mind. Making a profit, inventing and discovering useful things was a good thing, for it was seen as a demonstration of toil - working off Adam's sins - and a glorification of God.

Freedom was acceptable to protestants because it allowed believers to more effectively serve and glorify God. Getting smashed was not really something which glorified Him. Nor, incidentally, was getting high on pot or shopping on Sunday. Since these examples of individual choice had no heavenly bound purpose, they could be regulated and controlled. 

I'm not saying that most English speaking people believe this now, or believed it in the past. But just enough did to influence the public discourse for much of the last century. The attitude toward alcohol was first to ban it, then to regulate it and finally - out of greed and exhaustion - to use it as a milch cow for the welfare state. There's a reason they are still called "sin taxes."


Posted by Richard Anderson on January 18, 2011 | Permalink


Reading the description of how alcohol was once sold in Ontario make me see the parallel with tobacco to-day. The government approach to selling tobacco in BC is identical. Just waiting to see it applied to fast food.

Posted by: Alain | 2011-01-18 11:58:05 AM

Sorry for the typo of make instead of made.

Posted by: Alain | 2011-01-18 11:59:08 AM

The post reminded of the signs that used to be in front of doors into Beer Parlors in Alberta in the fifties and early sixties, "Ladies and Escorts". In those days, women were not allowed into drinking establishments unescorted by men!

Posted by: John Chittick | 2011-01-18 1:55:29 PM

Early sixties? I remember the first woman ordering a drink in the Ponderosa Tavern in 1972. I also remember the first black man walking through the door. You could have heard a pin drop! I was only about 17, and management knew it. That wasn't an alcohol issue, it was a bigotry issue.

Posted by: dp | 2011-01-18 3:25:07 PM

If you enjoy it , rest assured there is some activist group that wants you to stop it. The anti smoking push was actually started by the World health org. in the late 80's and was to be a blueprint on what worked and what did'nt to control harder drugs . Smokers were very visible and sales could be tracked since it was a legal product. Smoking was considered the lowest rung on the addiction ladder and the easiest to use for what worked and what did'nt in order to control what was considered a bad habit but a perfect test base. The anti smoking campaign was largely ineffective until a small swedish lab came up with the idea of second hand smoke with suspect data that has great parallels to global warming. Even the new great peril had little traction until they threw in the children and how damaging it was to them. That worked and anyone who questioned the data was shut out. The fact that most lung cancer patients were urban and most cities were under a brown smog blanket most of the summer was conveniently ignored. Rural smokers that lived to a ripe old age without respiritory problems were also ignored. Statistics were urban based only. The original goal to see what government strategy works best to control hard drugs has turned into a stalemate in need of evaluation. Bigger warning labels and restrictions on where one can smoke will do nothing to further the original goal of curtailing the hard drugs, as they are illegal and impossible to track.
The same tactics on smoking were all tried on alcohol during prohibition except there was no WHO and substitute liver for lung. Even the children were used as the victim.
Shows things have not changed much. Activists never quit. When one cause has been ridden into the ground they simply change causes and carry on. The nanny state was on a roll even 80 years ago and there will always be a abundant number of people that insist you live your life as they see fit.
The world is getting smaller but nanny is getting bigger every year. And nanny knows best. Nanny will never run out of causes.

Posted by: peterj | 2011-01-19 1:06:57 AM

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