Have a state-controlled cold one

It seems Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak wants to buy me a beer. Or sell me one cheap. I didn't know he was in that business. And now that I do know, I can't figure out why.

On Monday, Hudak said, "I do hear from people who say 'Come on, I can't even get a buck a beer in this province thanks to Dalton McGuinty's policies', " specifically his finance minister's 2008 instruction to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to raise the minimum price of a two-four from $24 to $25.60 (it's now $25.95 plus deposits). A number of people are incensed that the Tory leader would waste time on this allegedly trivial issue when so many more serious things are wrong with government in Ontario. I'm incensed that he didn't denounce the whole concept of government minimum prices for beer.

For starters, I'm baffled by the notion that beer is trivial. Benjamin Franklin said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." No one ever said that about politics, did they? Beer is real. Beer is actual. People drink beer when they're having fun, relaxing with friends, reading a book, watching the sunset or, in extreme strange cases, writing a newspaper column. It is part of the stuff of life and gloriously good in a normal healthy way. That's why it is profoundly wrong that the government should reach for our beer glasses.

Sure, in one sense all bad policy matters. Bad energy policy matters because we use electricity every day, bad health policy because we might get sick or already are or know someone who is. But while we live with the consequences of every type of bad policy (or under the shadow of its possible consequences), bad beer policy hits closer to home. Beer is part of our everyday life and it is a very important principle that ordinary people ought not to be meddled with in the course of their normal lives. Such meddling fosters destructive arrogance in the governors and demeaning helpless servility in the governed.

A key argument for government beer stores, minimum prices, and cameras in our houses is a patronizing belief that politicians must protect us from ourselves. In 2008, an LCBO spokesman defended the price hike by saying, "The concept is that if prices are low, consumption goes higher." But this amounts to saying my government thinks I'm probably an irresponsible drunk and should certainly be treated preemptively as such. Thank you. Thank you very much. Want to hear my opinion of you?

Of course there are people who drink too much. And of course raising the price of booze does tend to discourage consumption (although raising the price of only one kind leads to a significant amount of substitution especially among those whose real aim is to get high rather than savour a fine wine, scotch or beer). But the notion that it is the business of the state forcibly to prevent us from misusing life's good things to our own detriment violates the key conservative principle that it is only in the exercise of responsible choice that we are fully human.

That's why news stories like this one make me wonder: How do people know they're Tories? I ask more in the philosophical than the partisan sense though I'm frequently puzzled on the latter point as well. I know how people know they're tall, dark, handsome, and so on: They look in a mirror. But if you look in the mirror and you're blue it means you're really cold, have strange light bulbs, or forgot to take off your shades, not that you're a Tory.

I thought you figured out that sort of thing by realizing that, over time, you had come to accept a particular, coherent set of fundamental principles about human affairs with inherent policy implications. It certainly seems to be working for Maxime Bernier. And the rank and file; I've seen audiences at any number of nominally conservative political crowds routinely leap to their feet at denunciations of deficits, lavish spending, and arrogant bureaucrats and politicians meddling in citizens' lives.

Tories, in the philosophical sense, know that, as Barbara Bush once put it, what happens in your house matters more than what happens in the White House. Indeed, that's how they know they're Tories: They consider the state a useful servant but a dangerous master and believe self-government means controlling the conditions of our daily lives, not voting periodically on who shall control them for us. They definitely do not favour state-set minimum prices for life's small pleasures and consolations.

If you look in a mirror, see a Tory, then object to a minimum state price for beer in state-controlled stores because it's 8.125 per cent too high, I think you should, at the very least, try to get your money back on the mirror. Frankly I'd also take your philosophy back to the store although I doubt they'll give you even a nickel deposit for it.

Meanwhile I'll buy my own beer, thanks.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson