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Ed Philp: Quo Vadis Small Freedoms?

[Hello everyone. I'm off for a vacation for about two weeks or so. The posting will become intermittent. In the meantime, here's valued guest-blogger Ed Philp, expounding on his theory of the Small Freedoms. I hope he'll contribute even more while I'm gone, but he's got important things to do, so we can only hope... Take it away, Ed!]

In the past short while, Germany’s coalition government has sought to strike at some of the “small freedoms” in Germany I noted here (somewhat in jest) almost two years ago.

These initiatives relate to the liberal attitude to smoking in Germany, which Andrew revisits here, the lack of maximum speed limits (G) on the autobahn and the age of legal beer and wine consumption (16), which may now be raised (G) to 18 (although technically, this isn’t a coalition proposal, coming from the CDU and the Greens). In the past few months as well, we have also seen efforts to ban or further restrict the sale of violent video games. In my comment from 2005, I commented that Germany’s small freedoms seem to counterbalance limitations to ‘big’ freedoms, in contrast to the United States, which takes the opposite approach.

I’m now in agreement with Andrew on the proposed restrictions regarding smoking here and regard these as timely and legitimate. I suppose my reaction to speed limits is knee-jerk and resentful – powering a German sports car at 160 down a stretch of scenic German highway is still a visceral thrill for me that is somewhere on my Top 29 list of reasons to enjoy living in this country.

As for an increase in the legal age of alcohol consumption, I’m not in favor of this at all. First, the age of 16 strikes me as largely natural. That age is spent testing one’s limits anyway, and alcohol will play a part in this, whether legal or not. Take a look at the large numbers of alcohol consumption and possession offences in the USA or Canada for proof that 16 year olds will always find a way to beg, borrow or steal a six pack.

Second, by raising the age of legal consumption, this younger consumption is simply criminalized and driven underground and German 16 and 17 year olds will start drinking under bridges or at unsupervised house parties. Making alcohol consumption illegal increases its mystery factor and for many teens, will render it that much more attractive. The societal framework that can help to assist teenagers who consume too much alcohol evaporates. My German high school class spent most Saturday evenings at a bar called K5, which was filled with other sixteen year olds. Bartenders, bouncers and police were all watchful and intervened where someone couldn’t control themselves, and parents were well aware of what their kids were up to. By the time these people reached the age of 18 or so, they had learned about the effects of alcohol in a generally healthy social environment with lots of checks and balances and they used it in a largely responsible manner. The guy who couldn’t hold his beer at 16 had a gross story to tell; the one who was still ‘blowing his groceries’ every Friday a year later was a bit of a freak. Contrast this with an American high school graduation dance or university ‘orientation week’, where surreptitious alcohol consumption is common, and often results in vomiting, fights and – in the worst case – criminal convictions. The attraction of the illicit makes it that much cooler to promiscuously indulge.

Finally, perhaps most crucially, in Germany the driving age is also 18. Right now, this means that young people have two years to consume alcohol and find out how much it dulls your reflexes and generally turns you into a reckless fool before they ever sit behind the wheel of a vehicle. That seems to make good common sense. Offering an 18 year old both car keys and a beer bottle on her birthday, is, well, like offering money and power to government.

And how is Germany ever going to convince North American exchange students to spend a year over here without dangling the lure of legal access to liquor in front of them?

I’m going to speculate and say that in these initiatives, apart from smoking, the government is seeking regulatory solutions to ‘problems’ that were never defined as such before. Thorough and careful German driver training, as well as broad driver compliance with rigid rules (overtake on the left, get out of the way of faster vehicles, etc) made unrestricted highway driving safe enough for most. Open environments in which to experiment with alcohol, coupled with the expectation that teenage drinking is a fact of life, made for a generally safe environment for teens to consume alcohol. One of my classmates managed to ride his bike into a parked boat after excessive drinking fifteen years ago. Binge drinking occurred well before alcopops and ‘Koma-Saufen’ parties. Have these things really changed? I don’t think so.

As well, I think it is worth asking whether, in trading away some of these small freedoms, larger ones are at least being proportionately increased in turn. I haven’t seen a lot of this happening in the past two years, but maybe I am missing a coalition forest for the trees. Any comments here?

* I note that I can still ride on the streetcar here with an open bottle of beer (I am over 18), and can still expect gratuitous second-rate prime-time nudity (G - the link is to a site about a German show called "The Student and the Post-Woman"!) on television (even in sterile documentary format – warning – contains lots of nude Germans (mpg) frolicking in surf on the island resort of Rügen). Even if these particular aspects don’t interest me, that level of liberalism toward social freedoms does.

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