If you've been conscious on a college campus or visited CNN.com in the last month, you've probably heard of Four Loko, a popular new drink combining malt liquor, caffeine and somewhat questionable fruit flavoring. After a media firestorm was set off over the alleged danger of these drinks following an incident of alcohol poisoning at Central Washington University, the inevitable calls to ban the drink weren't far behind. Calling it anything from a "blackout in a can" to (rather inscrutably) "liquid cocaine," critics have banned the drink from three college campuses, including URI. The Attorney General of Washington is calling for a statewide ban and others are sure to follow.
These calls to ban Four Loko should trouble all of us, not just would-be frat boys and people who find it inconvenient to consume cocaine in non-liquid form. Paternalistic legislation is not simply an annoyance to be shrugged off. In fact, it is fundamentally illiberal to violate freedom in self-regarding actions in this way.
By "liberal", of course, I'm referring not to political left-liberalism in the vein of Ted Kennedy, but to philosophical liberalism, the foundational value set of America, shared by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan to Nancy Pelosi. This set of values is rooted in respect for the individual — including allowing each person to make decisions for him- or herself.
Before I wax philosophical, though, let's look at the case against Four Loko. Detractors cite several highly publicized cases of extreme intoxication at the hands of the drink this year. With a 23.5 ounce can that is 12 percent alcohol by volume, one Four Loko is the equivalent to nearly five beers. Additionally, it contains the same amount of caffeine as a 12-ounce cup of coffee. Because caffeine's stimulating effects can counteract feelings of intoxication, those mixing caffeine with alcohol often drink more than they otherwise would. Moreover, a Wake Forest study from last year supports the common-sense assumption that students are more likely to sustain alcohol-related injuries if mixing alcohol and caffeine than if drinking alcohol alone. This is all not to mention the fact that with both substances being diuretics, Four Lokos can naturally be expected to lead to some pretty heinous hangovers.
The knee-jerk response in America to a troubling new trend like this is "you know, they oughta make a law about that." College students often bear a disproportionate amount of this paternalism (see "Drinking Age, the") as we have only recently passed the age of majority and our low voting participation means that lawmakers are more liable to limit the rights of our generation than older, vote-rich generations.
I don't mean to deny that such a drink is a potent mix and suggest it is something to take lightly, and I'm sure that many students have been exceedingly irresponsible with the drink. However, caffeine and alcohol are by no means a combination exclusive to Four Loko, which it shares with time-honored classics like rum and Coke and Irish coffee.
Don't get me wrong, I naturally think that regulation, especially of potentially dangerous substances like this, is crucial. Making sure that consumers know what is in the product they are buying and how it might affect them is absolutely paramount. However, so long as someone knows what they are getting themselves into, even a profoundly dumb and self-destructive choice is one we must respect so long as it doesn't harm anyone else.
This is far from a moot point in today's society. With a whole raft of paternalistic laws mandating seat belts and motorcycle helmets, forbidding voluntary, physician-assisted suicide and imposing extremely large "sin taxes" on products like cigarettes, it is clear that the state does not respect our ability to make our own decisions and be responsible for their consequences. The "nanny state" should not just be a boogeyman-esque fear of anti-government conservatives. Even those of us who recognize the essential functions that government provides can still object when the government takes an inappropriate role.
This still leaves plenty of room for the state to play an appropriate role of protecting other people from the harmful impacts of others' decisions by doing things like banning smoking indoors or mandating safety locks on firearms. And of course, choosing not to wear seat belts or helmets is profoundly dangerous, suicide is often an unparalleled tragedy, and smoking is short-sighted at best. By no means do I want to counsel readers to do any of those things.
Still, we should recognize the dangers of paternalism and reject this troubling legal practice. As Henry David Thoreau said, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life."
And with that, let's slip out the back door, raise our Four Lokos in the air and have a toast to allowing people the freedom to control their own lives.
Kurt Walters '11 swears that the makers of Four Loko didn't pay him to write this column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org