Alcohol and “Food Deserts”

A City of Houston ordinance bans the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches and most private schools, or within 1,000 feet of public schools. Apparently, city leaders believe that the sale of alcohol is a threat to the well-being of children and church goers. However, it would seem that that threat does not exist in certain neighborhoods.

The Chronicle reports that City Council recently passed an exemption to the city’s ban (HT: blogHouston). The exemption is intended to encourage grocers to locate stores in “food deserts” in lower income neighborhoods. Mayor Parker is also considering “tax incentives, economic development tools and other means of support” to address the issue.

This is a classic example of happens when government sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong. The entire purpose of government controls and regulations is to force individuals to act contrary to their own voluntary judgment. When government prohibits private, non-coercive actions, the results are often different from what government desires. The ban on alcohol sales is an example.

Alcohol sales contribute significantly to the profits for most grocers. Consequently, when they are prohibited from selling beer and wine in certain locations, they typically do not locate stores in those neighborhoods. The result has been the “food deserts” that city officials are now trying to eliminate through tax incentives and exemptions.

Stripped of all the noble sounding platitudes, the exemption is nothing more than an attempt to bribe private businesses to act as city officials desire. Perhaps more significantly, it illustrates the city’s unprincipled policies.

In 2009, the city shut down a Spec’s liquor store on Washington Avenue because of the ban on alcohol sales, even though the city has previously given the company permission to build the store. Apparently, the residents along Washington Avenue deserve protection from the alleged evils of alcohol sales, but the residents of lower income neighborhoods don’t deserve that protection.

Any time that a legislative body creates an exemption to an existing law, there is a implicit admission that something is wrong with that law. Exemptions mean that the law will not be applied equally to all citizens—that some are criminals for breaking the law while others are granted a free pass. Imagine the uproar if City Council passed an exemption for burglary in Sharpstown or said that rapists would not be prosecuted for offenses occurring in Midtown.

Citizens do not ask for exemptions to proper, objective laws—those that prohibit the use of force and fraud. However, whenever legislative bodies pass improper laws—those that interfere with private, voluntary actions—exceptions become customary. Witness the exceptions for certain provisions of Obamacare or the variances that are routinely granted under zoning laws as examples.

To city officials, the law is not the means by which individual rights are protected. To them, the law is a club to beat citizens into submission. When necessary, they will resurrect laws that have gone unenforced for decades, or perhaps even write new laws aimed at specific individuals. Just ask the developers of the Ashby High-rise.

The “food deserts” have been created, at least in part, by an improper and immoral law. Rather than repeal that law, City Council has issued a partial repeal.

The solution to “food deserts” is not bribery, but economic freedom. If business owners were not subject to the arbitrary edicts of city officials, such as the alcohol sales ban, they would locate their businesses where it made economic sense. Economic freedom means respecting and protecting property rights—the freedom to own, use, produce, and trade material values.

Indeed, if property rights were respected and protected, virtually all of the political battles at City Hall would disappear. But that would also mean that politicians would lose their power over our lives, and they will not cede that power easily.

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