On The Social Uses (and Rules) of Alcohol

We’re all aware how deeply social human use of alcohol is, and also how deeply rule-bound human use of alcohol is.  Every culture that consumes the stuff has rules about who, where, when, how, and why one may or may not do so – and the cultures that don’t consume alcohol also tend to avoid it Because Rules.

Alcohol = social.  Alcohol = rules.  But, in contradiction of the ordinary logic of the syllogism, it turns out that the rules governing alcohol can be deeply social as well.

Consider alcohol control laws in Pennsylvania, where it is unlawful

 to sell, furnish or give any liquor or malted or brewed beverages, … to any person visibly intoxicated, or to any insane person, or to any minor, or to habitual drunkards, or persons of known untempered habits.

(emphasis added)

This is one of U.S. culture’s many codified rules about alcohol.  But to follow it, and thus to enforce it, is a deeply social practice.  How exactly is a bartender to recognize that a patron is in fact a “habitual drunkard” or a person of “known untempered habits”?  In a small town, or if the “habit” includes showing up at this particular bar night after night, this might be a simple matter – but if it is simple, it is simple because of the social knowledge and connection between the bartender and the patron.  In a large city, bars might (and probably do) serve “habitual drunkards” or “persons of known untempered habits” night after night without the social information necessary to realize they’re doing it.  (Which raises the question: who has to “know” about the “known untempered habit” in order to be liable?)

“Insane persons” is a tougher one, because it might have an objective element: one can be declared legally “insane.”  However, few such people carry around their judicial paperwork, and even fewer “insane” people act disoriented all the time.  Once again, the knowledge of the insanity is a social expectation, not an objective one – but here, the vendor doesn’t even get the potential “out” offered by the modified categories of “visibly intoxicated” or “known untempered habits.”  Apparently, one is supposed to know if a particular person is “insane” – whatever that means – without knowing the person at all and without being able to spot signs that the person is not currently in touch with reality.

Rhode Island’s alcohol rules dive into the social relationships even further.  Section 3-11-2 of the state’s General Laws reads:

The husband, wife, parent, child, guardian, or employer of any person who has the habit of drinking intoxicating beverages to excess may give notice, in writing, signed by him or her, to any person requesting him or her not to sell or deliver intoxicating beverage to the person having that habit. If the person, so notified, at any time within twelve (12) months sells or delivers any intoxicating beverage to the person having that habit, or permits that person to loiter on his or her premises, the person giving the notice may in a civil action recover from the person notified any sum as may be assessed as damages; provided, the employer giving the notice shall be injured in his or her person, business or property.

This is an expansion of the “dram shop” principle beyond that contemplated by any other state.  Most states, including Rhode Island, will allow an injured person to sue a vendor (and, in some states, a social host) who provided alcohol to a person who then caused an accident while drunk.  But here, Rhode Island is willing to collapse the injury into the sale itself: if a vendor is “on notice” from a Concerned Relative not to serve someone, the Concerned Relative has a civil claim if the alcohol is served, whether or not Concerned Relative is otherwise injured.

This is a powerful incentive for vendors not to serve people with Concerned Relatives.  To leverage this incentive is an intimately personal and social concern.  It requires the Concerned Relative to know which specific, individual vendors the patron is visiting and to contact them personally, and it requires individual vendors to identify individual “habitual drunkards.”  Chronic alcoholism is no longer a type; it’s a person.

Perhaps, when it comes to something as deeply social and deeply rule-bound as alcohol, the most effective rules will be the ones enforced at intimate, individual levels, like the Rhode Island statute.  But such enforcement becomes increasingly difficult in a highly mobile society composed of nearly half a billion people, most of whom seem convinced that everything – even habitual drunkenness and personal injury – are more matters of “personal opinion” than social concern.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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