Government Booze

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, liquor is only available from state-owned ‘ABC Stores.’ Beer and wine are available from grocery stores and other retailers, and restaurants can be licensed to serve liquor and mixed drinks, but if you want to pick up a bottle of Bacardi Superior for home use your only legal source in the state is . . . the state itself.

Our state liquor stores are a historic anachronism left over from the end of prohibition. When national prohibition was repealed in 1933, whether to permit or prohibit production and consumption of alcohol was left to the individual states. Many states with strong ‘temperance’ (i.e., prohibitionist) movements, primarily led by religious conservatives with a curiously un-biblical position on alcohol, chose to either continue state-level prohibition policies or use a state-controlled alcohol monopoly to limit the availability of strong drink.

So, in an indefensible act of utter absurdity, conservative states like Virginia decided to go into the alcohol business to discourage the drinking of alcohol. As if this weren’t silly enough, they were doing so to kowtow to Christian conservatives who didn’t even understand what Holy Scripture has to say about the stuff (which is, to paraphrase, ‘it’s fine in moderation, just don’t overdo it’).

Maybe this all made some kind of sense in 1933, although I sincerely doubt it. It certainly makes no sense in 2010.

One of Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R-VA) campaign promises was that he would try to privatize our ABC Stores and use the profits for transportation improvements. His efforts to do so, however, are being met with opposition.

You see, the ABC monopoly is quite profitable for the state—the taxpayer-owned stores bring in about 260 million dollars per year. While the state would get a big one-time payment from selling the stores, the estimated tax receipts from private-sector alcohol sales would fall at least 47 million dollars short of what the state-owned stores bring in. As such, the Democratic Party-controlled Virginia Senate seems unlikely to support the privatization plans—after all, that’s 47 million dollars that could go to some pointless rural-Virginia transportation pork like most of the rest of our highway funds.

Meanwhile, any discussion in the various local web forums degrades quickly into a relative comparison of crime rates in the private Maryland and Washington, DC, liquor stores compared to Virginia’s state-owned stores. I’m not sure how this is relevant, since I doubt criminals spend a lot of time worrying about whether a store is state-owned or not when they decide to rob it. Virginia’s ABC Stores are, indeed, much safer places to visit than DC’s or Maryland’s liquor stores. Virginia’s malls, gas stations, schools, highways, bus stops, and neighborhoods are safer than Maryland’s and DC’s too, and that has nothing to do with whether any of them are state-owned or not. The crime rates are a factor of other social issues, not least of which being that in Virginia—unlike Maryland and DC—people are allowed to arm themselves for their own protection. Criminals prefer unarmed opposition, so they don’t commit as many crimes in Virginia.

These are all side issues. It’s irrelevant how nice and safe Virginia’s liquor stores are relative to the ones in other states, and it’s irrelevant how much money the state stands to lose by divesting itself of the ABC Stores. One thing matters: Is there any clear public interest in liquor being sold by state ABC stores instead of, say, in grocery stores and/or private liquor stores? If not, then the state has no business doing it.

The answer is clearly no. No public interest is served by the state-owned liquor stores.

Even if the state did have a legitimate public interest in discouraging drinking, making itself the sole provider of strong drink is an absurd way to go about accomplishing that goal. If I wanted to discourage people from buying Chryslers, I don’t see how going into business as the region’s only Chrysler dealer would help. And doesn’t it bother the non-scriptural anti-drink Christians who were responsible for creating this monopoly in the first place that they have to pay taxes to the owner/operator of a chain of liquor stores? I would be terribly upset if I had to pay taxes to the owner/operator of something I considered immoral.

I have nothing against drinking (in moderation). I think when Jesus says ‘wine’ he means ‘wine,’ not ‘grape juice.’ And yet, I get upset when I think about my state government operating liquor stores . . . because government should stay out of the free market. What right has the Commonwealth of Virginia to give itself a profitable monopoly over the sale of a private sector product? We wouldn’t accept our state operating a chain of computer stores, or establishing itself as the sole provider of cell phone service, or deciding that nobody but them can sell brownies. These things aren’t the business of our state government, nor should they be.

At best, you can argue that alcohol can be dangerous if used to excess or used improperly (e.g., drinking and driving) . . . but cell phones can be used improperly too, as can computers, and eating too many brownies can have major negative health impacts. If the sale of alcohol is, by this tortured logic, a public matter, than so is almost everything else. And if everything is somehow in the public interest, we might as well just have the Commonwealth of Virginia take over the entirety of our state economy and be done with it.

Or we could do the right thing, the smart thing, the free market thing: get our government out of the booze business.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.