Friday, May 1, 2009

Reason #16: Scary Booze!!!

In Quakertonia, all gasoline and diesel fuel sales are made by the state's Fuel Control Board; kerosene and propane are sold by private businesses (fuel distributors can only sell 55 gallon drums of kerosene and 500 lb. tanks of propane; grill stores can sell 20 lb. grill tanks and five gallon cans of kerosene. No one knows why). Every town of 3,000 people gets a Fuel Shop; the price is the same in every town -- high -- diesel is only available in special stations on the highways, and the sales clerks are only allowed to sell fuel to licensed drivers. Fuel sales are "controlled" by the state because gasoline is highly flammable and the vapors are explosive (and carcinogenic), and because uncontrolled gasoline sales could lead to people driving all over the place (which apparently has no ill effects in neighboring, "uncontrolled" states) and because the taxes are a huge source of revenue.

In New Cornwall, all cigarette and cigar sales are made by the state's Tobacco Control Board; pipe and chewing tobacco are sold by private businesses (leaf shops sell Prince Albert in the can (hee hee!) and 20-packs of Skoal; gas stations can sell bags of Red Man and single cans of Copenhagen. No one knows why). Every town of 3,000 people gets a Smoke Shop; the prices are the same in every town -- high -- cigars are only available in stores in big cities, and the sales clerks are only allowed to sell smokes to 16 year olds and up. Tobacco sales are "controlled" by the state because tobacco is a health hazard (which apparently is no worse in neighboring, "uncontrolled" states than in New Cornwall) and because the taxes are a huge source of revenue.

In Minnewaska, all prescription drugs -- no, wait -- all guns are sold by -- no, hang on, how about all the cars, yeah, the state sells all the cars and you're not allowed to buy cars in another state... and coffee, too. And power tools. And energy drinks. And horny goat weed.

You get the picture. Why is wine and spirits the only retail business the State is in? What makes booze so special?

Reason #16:

There is no convincing reason that wine and spirits should be "controlled" more than anything else.

The basis for "control" is, first of all, over 75 years out of date. It goes back to the idea that drinking, any amount of drinking, was dangerous for anyone, not just alcoholics. More to the point, control of alcohol was more about morals than it was about anything else. Here's what The Almighty Liquor Code says about why the PLCB was founded:
for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon, and all of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of this purpose.
You know what? Back in those days there were all kinds of laws about morality. Depending on the state or town, you could be busted for selling a condom (now they sell 'em in vending machines), stores didn't open on Sundays (even the State Stores are open on Sundays now), you couldn't sell porno through the mail (they give it away on the Internet...), you couldn't even swear on TV. All that went away, and lots of other things from that same kind of thinking, but Pennsylvanians still have to put up with the State selling them booze, and protecting their health, peace, and morals.

Come on! I can buy a can of diesel fuel at the Sunoco station, a bag of fertilizer at the Agway, and The Anarchist Cookbook off Amazon. I can buy a gun (we get constant wrong numbers for a local gunshop), I can buy everything I need to cook up crystal meth (or so they tell me), I can buy a tank of propane, I can buy cigarettes, I can buy an aluminum baseball bat, I have bought long kitchen knives. Compared to this stuff, what is so damned dangerous about a bottle of merlot that the state has to control my access to it?

The entire idea of control is pointless. We do not have border controls; New Jersey's got stores full of whiskey and wine right over there and they don't control me. We can buy a case of 11% beer at the privately-owned distributor. We can go to a bar and drink whatever they have. The only thing "control" make buying booze a pain in the ass.

The PLCB should be abolished because the idea that sales of wine and spirits need to be "controlled" makes no sense when compared to other products: guns, explosives, drugs, tobacco, cars, airplanes, knives, power tools... The State collects taxes on wine and spirits, but it collects taxes on beer, too: through the distributors. The State makes its mark-up on wine and spirits; why not have the State sell everything, then, from groceries to fishing rods? It makes no sense, and if it weren't for the blanket interpretation of the 21st Amendment that states can do whatever they want with alcohol, it would be gone.

Let's get rid of this dinosaur. Is it just about the money? Then make it about the money. Sell it -- make money -- auction off booze store licenses -- make money -- and PA stores will be selling all that booze that the superstores over the border are selling now -- and making money.

There's no real reason not to do it.


CigarShrink said...

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest."-Adam Smith

If Mr. Smith were commenting on this blog, he'd probably point out that LCB employees and officials--like butchers, brewers, and bakers--are motivated by self-interest.

Your points are all perfectly valid from a systemic point of view. It certainly makes no sense for the state to be in the booze business and the citizens would probably be better off if the whole thing were privatized.

It would probably be a done deal if civil servants were primarily concerned with "the public good." Ideas like that, however, exist mainly in the abstract. The specific clerk, manager, and state official working within this system is actually concerned with his own self-interest.

Look at it in a different context for a minute. If my employer decided that it would be best for all concerned if my job was eliminated, no amount of logical argument about what is "best for the company" is going to make me feel okay about it. If I can do anything at all to save my job, I'll do it...and worry about justifying it later.

All the logical arguments in the world aren't going to make a difference, I fear. Change will require creating a situation in which its in the self-interest of the powers that be give up their power and control.

Short of massive and enthusiastic public support for privatization (i.e., "vote for this, or we'll kick you out of office") I don't see how we do that.

Lew Bryson said...

No argument here; see the quote at the upper left of the page. Although I will argue one thing: the clerks and managers don't have much to say about privatization, except to add their voice to those against it. They don't have any real power. It's down to the legislators, and putting pressure on them.

The only reason I created this blog was to try to get arguments and anger going out there. That's the only real leverage there is. Which is why it's so nice to see things like the courtesy contract come along: thanks for the help, PLCB!

sam k said...

Excellent argument here. Thanks for the sound and creative reasoning.

If you think that fuel sales are tough on Quakertonians, you should try to buy razor blades in Port Matildiana!