Posted on August 24, 2011
State Of Inebriation
PA tries to hold its liquor
Eccentric Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky once tried to win his country's presidency by promising cheap vodka, "at every corner, around the clock." Despite the populist appeal of that platform, he was not elected. Perhaps he should have been running for office in Pennsylvania, instead.
Here in the Keystone State, the sale of liquor has been the function of "state stores," controlled by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, ever since the end of prohibition. It's an arrangement Zhirinovsky might have designed himself, resembling as it does the punch line to a Yakov Smirnoff joke: "In Russia, government drive you to get drunk; in Pennsylvania, you drive to government to get drunk." Over the past several decades, governors from both parties have repeatedly tried to get the state out of the booze business, but have been consistently thwarted.
The latest effort is being led in the state legislature by Allegheny County Republican Mike Turzai. The PLCB and the United Food and Commercial Workers oppose his plan, contending that privatizing the liquor business would result in alcoholic beverages becoming more expensive and less accessible to consumers.
Their claim that privatized booze will be more expensive is based not on any deficiencies in the free market system, but on proposed changes in the method of taxation. Pennsylvanians today are still paying the "temporary" Johnstown Flood Tax, an 18 percent levy on wines and spirits that was originally set at 10 percent, and intended to fund the recovery from that 1936 disaster. Turzai's plan calls for it to be replaced with a new tax formula, based on the quantity and alcoholic content of each product.
Opponents of privatization argue that the new tax will be more severe, whereas Turzai replies that this needn't be the case, because the rates of taxation are left to the discretion of the legislature. The only way the privatized hooch might be more expensive would be if the government deliberately made it so.
The accessibility argument is based on the fact that government entities, not being subject to the laws of supply and demand, remain in operation in areas where there's no demand for them, even thought they're losing money. Paradoxically, the very fact that people don't want something is taken by government as a moral imperative to provide it. In this way, the state stores operate sort of like National Public Radio, except that their products don't exterminate brain cells quite as proficiently.
In the same vein as Michelle Obama's campaign against so-called "food deserts," the PLCB and UFCW are trying to scare people into believing there will be booze deserts. Wherever some isolated lush may be sprawled on the ground with his tongue hanging out, the state promises to come running to the rescue, like a Saint Bernard with a barrel around its neck.
Their case would be a lot more persuasive if they could point out any other product for which it holds true. When you need a hammer, you don't go to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Tools. You go to a store run by people whose business is to sell hardware, and who are driven to compete for your business. It's plainly not true that the state is uniquely equipped to distribute material goods, but if it were, alcoholic beverages would be an unconscionably frivolous use of that power. The mere fact that government does not also monopolize supermarkets and retail stores belies the insincerity of Turzai's critics.
Not that we needed it to do so. The very idea that state bureaucrats, and spokesmen for a union that had close ties to ACORN, have any sympathy for taxpaying consumers doesn't even pass the drunk test.
If opponents of privatization could be honest about their reasons, they would point out that the PLCB would have to shrink its workforce if it weren't operating the liquor stores, and that the UFCW's membership would likely decline as well. Understandable as those motives are, they are no justification for government control of the state's liquor sales. Therefore, the beneficiaries of the state store system simply tell us the most preposterous lie they can possibly think of -- that politicians can provide goods and services more efficiently and inexpensively than the free enterprise system can.
Their political supporters, those miniature Zhirinovskys in Harrisburg, are only too eager to adopt that lie for themselves. Even as you're reading this, their campaign staffers must be busy at work, designing yard signs and bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan, "Cheap vodka at every corner."
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