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July 1, 2009 / jnolen

Democracy at work

As some of you may know, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama is a pretty conservative state, and it’s liquour laws have always matched that reputation. There are still some dry counties, hard liquor is regulated, taxed and distributed by the Alabama Beverage Commission, and for my entire lifetime, no beer over 6% alcohol could be sold inside the state. Now, it’s no Utah, but this restriction meant that there was a lot of great beer I never had the opportunity try until I left Alabama: Chimay, Delirium Tremens, Duvel, Orval, lots of Double IPAs and bocks, some North Coast Beers, some Rogue Ales, and hundreds more.

For the last five years, an organization called Free the Hops has been working to pass legislation to change the beer limitations. And after half a decade of hard work, they got the the bill through Alabama’s dysfunctional legislature this Spring. And on May 22, 2009, Gov. Bob Riley signed the bill into law.

Within days, gourmet beer was appearing all over Birmingham. (I know, because I was following the Free the Hops Twitter feed). It was amazing to watch: “Duvel, Orval, and Delerium Tremens have been confirmed.” “Huge shipment of new beers expected tomorrow at Western.” “Every Piggly Wiggly in metro Birmingham will be stocked with new good beer tomorrow.” It was like that episode in the Simpsons when they repealed prohibition in Springfield and the trucks started rolling in minutes later. It was almost that fast.

Sure, some might say gourmet beer is a trivial example, but I learned two lessons from this. First, it was so gratifying to watch a group of citizen activists bootstrap their organization, garner support, and then fully achieve their goal. They knew how to work inside the system, the collected the right set of sponsors, and they kept their constituency informed, motivated and active using modern social technology.

Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more direct and immediate response to regulatory change. And it impressed on me again that government policies like these matter, whether at the local, state or federal level. There are tons of them and they’re complicated, but they have concrete and meaningful effects on how we live our lives. The “government is the problem”, “regulations are burdensome”, “stay out of my business” knee-jerk response (besides often being hypocritical) is the wrong one. Regulations and taxes are the tools of government. The struggle is to make sure they exert their influence for good, not ill.

But anyone, for once, the good guys won. And I’ll raise a pint of delicious beer in their honor next time I visit Alabama. Cheers!

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