Let Taco Trucks Sell Beer

by Conor Friedersdorf

In my professional life, the freedom sapping policies that bother me most are consequential things like torture, excessive government surveillance, and the other civil liberties issues longtime readers have seen me cover. But in my personal life, it's restrictions related to the sale of alcohol that drive me nuts: Alabama's longtime prohibition on beer with the alcohol content of an average IPA; the baffling law in New York State that prevented my girlfriend and I from sharing a sample of whiskey when we visited a distellery; the fact that prior to a party I threw I couldn't buy alcohol at the Costco in Virginia; the notion that it is illegal for me to go down to a California beach on a Saturday at twilight and sip a cocktail at the water's edge as the sun sets.

These aren't the most urgent laws in the world to overturn, especially the ones that can easily be broken without great consequence. But they're so needless, nonsensical, and petty, and they offend my notion of the proper relationship between the state and its citizens. That brings me to an editorial in the Portland Oregonian. It's already been ridiculed by Kathryn Mangu Ward at Reason, but I can't help myself from seconding her. The subject are food carts in the city, some of which want to sell alcohol.

The OLCC has begun analyzing this request slowly, thoughtfully and carefully, as it should. The agency's first stop is the attorney general's office, to explore the legal ramifications of allowing food carts to serve alcohol. And let's acknowledge that, at present, neither the city nor the state has much experience in this realm. A wider, deeper exploration of what other states and cities do -- and don't do -- would be invaluable in guiding Oregon's policy direction. But our first response to the idea of food carts serving alcohol is overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: No, no, no.

There are two problems, as we see it, and not only do they seem insurmountable, but they also appear to be linked. First, food carts would have difficulty policing alcohol service to make sure it is legal and responsible. Second, if they found a way to solve that problem by fencing or roping off their alcohol service areas, other restaurants could gripe, quite legitimately, that the carts are undermining their businesses.

As Mangu-Ward points out, it's phenomenally absurd to assert that selling beer from a cart presents "insurmountable" challenges. Ponder that! Then there is this bizarre habit we have in America of roping off areas where people are drinking alchol. Many of you have likely experienced this pointless practice. "Oh, you want a beer at this concert? Come pack yourselves into this too small area." Because nothing makes alcohol use in society safe and healthy like packing all the drunks together.

And is it legitimate for brick and mortar restaurants to complain that carts are undermining their business? Bah. It's competition. To be fair, restaurants could legitimately complain if they faced huge burdens to sell alcohol, while food carts faced none. The solution: get rid of the absurdly costly regulations burdening the restaurants. The Oregnonian urges study of "what other states and cities do," and I encourage them to look across the Atlantic toward Europe. Any number of cities there show that citizens of liberal democracies can thrive and prosper even as carts legally sell alcohol outdoors!

Of course, Oregon remains under the mistaken impression that it is unwise to let consumers pump their own gas, despite it working out just fine almost everywhere else in the country, so the fact that its legislators can increase freedom without anything bad happening apparently isn't sufficient grounds for action.