Our bossy society is completely losing sight of the value of risky behavior

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When told that Gen. Ulysses Grant drank too much, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have inquired as to Grant’s choice of booze, so he could send some to his other generals. The anecdote captures the central argument of “Drunk,” Edward Slingerland’s new book on alcohol, policy and culture — and it offers lessons for all sorts of other regulatory efforts.

Most of today’s regulatory framework for alcohol traces back to the immediate post-Prohibition years. The basic assumption was that alcohol consumption is bad but unavoidable. The goal, then, was to regulate in ways that led people to drink less, via high taxes and inconveniences, without returning to the bootleggers and speakeasies of the disastrous Prohibition era.

Though things have lightened up a bit since then, that’s still the basic philosophy today. Alcohol discussions tend to turn on things like liver damage, impaired driving, violence and so on.

These negative consequences are real. But as Slingerland makes clear, they aren’t the whole story. There are a lot of less-heralded positives.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that civilization came from alcohol. Before agriculture was invented, hunter-gatherers brewed beer from wild grains. It’s more likely that agriculture came from a desire to have a steady supply of beer than from efforts to produce more bread.

Given the downsides, alcohol consumption must also offer some advantages, Slingerland reasons, else it would have died out. But it hasn’t. In fact it’s hard to find successful civilizations that don’t use alcohol — and those few that qualify tend to replace it with other intoxicants that have similar effects.

The most important effect is suppressing the prefrontal cortex, producing a more childlike, trusting, creative mind; a columnist in my hometown, Jim Dykes, used to talk about pouring a glass of “column-starter” (bourbon) before writing. Slingerland points to examples from history, leavened with neurological and behavioral experiments, to suggest that alcohol’s facilitation of social bonding and creative thought offers social benefits that outweigh its costs, especially at a societal level.  

Drinking doesn’t just make us feel good, it also makes us get along better, cooperate more effectively and think more expansively. Silicon Valley companies have whiskey bars to which engineers repair when they’re stuck on a problem, companies (and even my law faculty) have happy hours, and pubs and taverns have played a vital role in bringing strangers together convivially for millennia. (When I used to hang out with Southern politicians, they didn’t trust people who wouldn’t drink with them: Alcohol makes it harder to maintain a mask. In vino, veritas, as the Romans said.)

Alcohol, then, has many positive social dimensions, and a regulatory system should notice these.

Of course, drinking isn’t all upside, but that isn’t the point. The point is that it’s not all downside, either — yet we regulate it, essentially, as if it were. We need a more balanced approach.

And it isn’t just alcohol. As our culture has veered in an increasingly bossy and punitive direction, the tolerance for any sort of downside is vanishing. The “playground movement” at the beginning of the last century argued “better a broken arm than a broken spirit.” Today’s society takes a different approach.

Just letting children play unsupervised outdoors can draw a visit from Child Protective Services nowadays, and bureaucrats aren’t the least bit concerned with protecting the children from having their spirit broken by too little play.

During the pandemic, we saw a degree of safety-ism that discounted the value of humans getting together in the face of tiny or even notional risks, leading to absurdities like ocean paddle-boarders being arrested for paddling maskless. There’s much more value in the activity than risk in being unmasked at sea.

The list of cases where killjoys focus excessively on the negative is huge, and anyone reading this can think of many examples. But what do we do about it?

To start with, we should take the killjoys less seriously. They may get pleasure out of bossing others around, but that pleasure bears at least as heavy a cost as drinking. Tell them to buzz off. Mock them. Or, you know, buy them a drink. Maybe they just need to mellow out.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the ­InstaPundit.com blog.

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