Brown: Utah’s Liquor Laws Contradict Republican Values


Piper Armstrong

(Graphic by Piper Armstrong | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Jackson Brown, Opinion Writer


If there’s one value that the Republican party holds above nearly all others, it is the prospect of freedom. From lower taxes, to loosening speech restrictions, to ending mask mandates, Republicans withhold government intervention whenever possible. However, Utah’s Republican party does not apply those same freedoms to alcohol legislation.

On the first page of the Utah Republican Party’s official platform is the belief that “[government] must be restrained from intruding into the freedoms of its citizens.” The support of state-owned alcohol is completely contradictory. Utah Republicans consistently object to overreaching government and socialist programs, so a state-owned program such as the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) shouldn’t hold so much power. Yet, the Utah Republican party supports one of seven state-controlled liquor programs in the nation and allows a program that runs contrary to their values. They must work harder to enhance freedom.

Since I became voting age, I’ve been a registered Republican. Generally speaking, I believe the government sucks at most things, and it should go away whenever possible. This sentiment holds the same for most Utahns. Today, Republicans make up almost half of registered voters in Utah, more than three times the number of registered Democrats. Through the lens of demographics, this is no surprise. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominates the political scene — more than 60% of the population is LDS, and 70% of those who identify as LDS lean Republican. Yet, programs like the DABC still exist, contradicting traditional Republican values.

Somewhat unpredictably, the justification for DABC’s existence is public safety. To gain insight on the Utah Republicans’ support for the state-run program, I had a conversation with Rep. Timothy Hawkes, a strong promoter of the DABC. When asked about the contradiction, Rep. Hawkes didn’t mention the dominant religion, as some might have expected, but instead discussed the protection of liberties of those who are not consuming alcohol. He said, “Whether it’s liver cirrhosis and I have to pay for your cirrhosis, or — I had a great grandfather who was killed by a drunk driver… on the streets of Salt Lake City. You know, that’s what we’re trying to mitigate. It’s not so much somebody drinking alone in the corner that we worry about.”

DABC’s goal, according to Rep. Hawkes, is to “interfere with the free market.” By disrupting the public’s access to alcoholic products, the social consequences can be mitigated. That’s a fair argument and an important one at that. More than 50 people are killed in Utah per year from alcohol-related traffic incidents, and while that number has consistently gone down, it’s still too high.

However, this restricts the options law-abiding citizens have to drink in their homes when they want to. Want to have a glass of wine for Thanksgiving dinner? Sorry, the liquor store is closed. Looking to have a fun late night in with friends?  Better be quick — most liquor stores close at either 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. Strong restrictions also apply to businesses in Utah. Bars cannot stay open past 1 a.m., and there are various nitpicky restrictions on serving alcohol. Maximizing safety is vital, don’t get me wrong. But maximizing the freedom of those who want to make their own decisions on alcohol consumption cannot be ignored.

DABC’s existence seems like a net benefit for Utah, as alcohol-related driving deaths have trended downward for around 40 years. However, there must be ways to achieve that same benefit while allowing for expanded liberty. I prodded Rep. Hawkes about this by asking if the same benefits could be achieved through enhanced education, harsher DUI sentences, or expanded night police presence. He said that while Republican lawmakers are “open to all of those kinds of things,” it would be difficult to test these potential solutions because there could be serious safety repercussions if they don’t work.

The catch is that alternate solutions have been proven effective. High-visibility enforcement greatly reduces DUI incidents. Also, in Texas, harsher DWI penalties have led to the fewest DWI fatalities per 100,000 people per year. While I understand the difficulty of trying new solutions in an established system, settling for a safety solution that restricts freedom is unacceptable. Utah Republicans should research alternative safety-ensuring methods. They are turning a blind eye to their foundational values and sending their constituents mixed signals.

If Utah Republicans are serious about giving their voters freedom, they must move away from the DABC. The program has shown to be fairly effective on the safety front, but at a cost that cannot be easily overlooked. The stated goal is to promote limited government and individual responsibility, so let’s see it. Stop settling for less-than-perfect solutions because while this may seem like a trivial issue, it reveals how actions often stray from values.


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