Cheap Spirits and the Spirit of Freedom

When I learned that liquor can be sold in Louisiana all day and night, I was stunned. And then I was stunned at myself for being stunned. More than stunned -- appalled, actually. I’m an American, but in that moment I realized I’ve lived in Norway so long that -- for all my endless ranting about it -- I’ve grown accustomed, on some level, to that illiberal, menacing, infantilizing monster, the Nanny State. Despite all my best efforts, I’d turned into somebody who was thrown by the idea of a laissez-faire liquor law. “I’ve lived in Norway so long,” I lamented on Facebook, “that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live like an adult.”

Of course this isn’t about liquor -- it’s about freedom. Liquor prices and opening hours are hard facts. But the larger subject here is a more elusive one, which involves not just facts but feelings. It’s about the whole experience of living in one kind of place or another. In some places, so many of the establishments and institutions that figure in your life are owned, run, and very strictly regulated by the government that it can feel as if you spend every day with the heavy hand of the state constantly on your shoulder. In other places, you just don’t have that feeling.

The latter sensation is called feeling free.

I’m not trying to make an argument here about the medical, social, or other consequences of selling liquor at a low or high price, or of making access to it easy or difficult. I’m concerned here with a higher distinction: the distinction between a society in which people grow up taking for granted their government’s right -- and even duty -- to control their lives, at every level, for (supposedly) their own good, and a society in which people recoil instinctively from such thinking, recognizing it, quite rightly, as a threat to their liberty. I’m talking about the difference between a place where the word bureaucrat has a positive ring to it and the word entrepreneur a negative one, and a place in which the reverse is the case.

This distinction isn’t just theoretical. For some of us, anyway, it’s palpable. It’s something you can sense -- can feel in your bones -- when you walk a city’s streets. Never mind that Norway, by some measures, does indeed come out ahead of, say, the state of Louisiana. The point is that that feeling of freedom matters more. It’s something the Founding Fathers understood; it’s something Emma Lazarus was on to when she wrote about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” There is such a thing as “breathing free” -- and people who’ve spent their lives with that heavy hand on their shoulder know it in their bones.

What’s tragic is that many people who’ve breathed free all their lives just don’t appreciate it, the same way that people who’ve never experienced asthma don’t appreciate being able to, well, breathe. They’re quick to smile on freedom-quashing tyrants, from Castro to the Muslim Brotherhood, because those bullies are alleged to provide decent health care or other social services.  This is our time’s great decadence: in the world’s freest nation, students at “top universities” cheer Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and mock a soldier who was wounded defending their freedom.

Living away from America for a long stretch can, indeed, cause you to forget what it’s like to live like an adult. But it can also help you to recognize -- and cherish -- that freedom the moment you get a taste of it again. If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, freedom is, among many other things, very much like a reasonably priced bottle of booze.