Jac Wilder VerSteeg: West Palm plants seeds of the Nanny State

nanny state jac

The West Palm Beach City Commission has provided a perfect example of how government turns into The Nanny State.

At its first meeting of 2015, The Palm Beach Post reports, the Commission voted 4-0 to require bars to post signs reminding customers that it is illegal for people under 21 to buy alcohol and illegal for bars to sell it to them. The signs must include a warning that breaking the law can result in penalties.

Said Mayor Jeri Muoio: “Anything we can do to reduce underage drinking is good.”

That assumes of course that posting such signs will reduce underage drinking. Are there any bartenders who don’t know the rules? Are there any kids who don’t know the rules? Are there any underage patrons who, after going to all the trouble to obtain a fake ID, will decide not to buy alcohol after reading one of the signs?

Of special interest – and a clue as to why such things happen – Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, who had voted against the ordinance on first reading, changed her mind and voted with the unanimous majority on second reading.

Even as she was voting for it, Mitchell said: “I really don’t see how this is going to solve a problem. You put up so many signs. Nobody’s looking at any of the signs.”

And yet…she voted for it.

A factor must be that Mitchell has just announced that she will run to replace Muoio as mayor. Just imagine the ads if she’d voted the other way: “Mitchell voted to let children drink!”

There’s more going on just under the surface. Mitchell’s mother is former Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Anita Mitchell. Muoio, a Democrat, became mayor just after Lois Frankel – now a Democratic U.S. representative – held the post.

City Commission races are nominally nonpartisan. But look for the partisan machines to gear up as the March municipal elections approach. Partisan money always makes races nastier – including slurs about encouraging kids to drink.

West Palm Beach, like Palm Beach County and South Florida generally, has a strong Democratic bent. Kimberly Mitchell, with her pedigree, can’t afford to be painted as an uncaring Republican.

Such a charge would be ridiculous. Mitchell has been one of the strongest advocates of providing better schools for the city’s poor families. Her favored solution – a city-run charter school – might or might not be a good idea. But she truly is a compassionate conservative. However, she’s usually more hard-headed than this.

And this is where we find the Nanny State’s roots. Proposal X might not do any real good, but it won’t do any real harm, either (if you don’t count the impact on businesses that have to pay for the signs). So, it’s “Worth a try.”

A similar scenario just played out at the county level, where the Palm Beach County Commission last month took a step toward requiring businesses selling kratom – an herbal stimulant – to post signs warning of possible ill effects. A local mother blames kratom for her son’s suicide. But the medical facts are, to say the least, uncertain.

When this kind of thing filters up to the state and national levels, the results can be attempts to ban soft-drink sales and censor breakfast cereal ads. Soda and sugary cereals should not be on the menu. But it’s up to parents, not Nanny politicians, to make those decisions for themselves and for their children.

I have no issue with regulations that effectively address an actual problem – that’s what the underage drinking laws themselves do – but when there might be a problem that might be addressed and the best argument in favor is that, “It’s worth a try”…Try doing nothing.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida.

Jac VerSteeg


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