Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Alcohol in Iraq: Non-Governmental Coercion in Vice Control

Selling liquor has become extremely dangerous in Iraq, as this AP story makes clear: " many as nine liquor store owners, most of them Christians, have been killed in Basra since the fall of Saddam ..."; and "Besides the murders, dozens of liquor stores owned by Christians have been torched in recent months."

When John Stuart Mill crafted his harm principle in 1859, the type of unjustified coercion that he was most concerned about was not coercion by the state, but coercion by public opinion. (Mill's own irregular but presumably chaste and longstanding relationship with a married woman (he and she eventually married after her first husband's death) perhaps contributed to his recognition that social sanctions could be severe on those who didn't follow the usual paths.) And of course, it is public opinion that often empowers the state to persecute "dissidents." Adult vice activity, precisely because it has no identifiable victims (at least in many of its manifestations), seems to be particularly susceptible to private coercion. (Let me note that coercion is different from disapproval or dissuasion -- it is one thing to disapprove of someone else's vice, and something else again to punish him or her for engaging in it or to use force to prevent him or her from so engaging.)

Nevertheless, it is probably the case that in the US we tend to think of coercion as primarily a state activity. But the situation in Iraq with respect to alcohol sales (and playing music, and wearing the veil...) serves as a reminder that the situation is not always a repressive state on one side versus a more lenient public on the other. And so rules like that proposed in France, to outlaw the veil (and other religious symbols) in schools, are not prima facie affronts to liberty. If the alternative to such a law is that everyone will let a hundred flowers bloom, then the law is an affront to liberty. If the alternative to state coercion not to wear a veil is private coercion mandating the wearing of a veil by Muslim women, however, then lovers of liberty have to look more closely.

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