Will Pennsylvania Drag Itself into the 19th Century by Privatizing State Liquor Stores?


As a former resident of Philadelphia, the very city that midwifed the American Experiment and served as the setting for the charming musical 1776, I can attest firsthand to Pennsylvania's idiotic and insulting liquor laws. The state monopolizes sales of hard liquor and wine and limits the hows and wheres of beer buying too, all in the name of saving citizens from themselves while piling up tax revenues for those same residents.

Arguably the apex (nadir?) of this nanny-statism was the attempt by the commonwealth to introduce vending machines in grocery stores through which Pennsylvanians would finally be allowed the simple joy of picking up a bottle of red or white while going shopping for the rest of their dinners. Didn't work out, though, because the idea of a wine-vending machine in a supermarket is really kind of stupid (and scare tactics by unions threatened by any changes in status quo didn't help).

Then again, maybe the most obviously screwed-up story here is the one in which the state seized $160,000 in wine from a couple and threatened to destroy it.

Len Gilroy of Reason Foundation, the think tank operated by the same nonprofit that publishes Reason.com, reports that the Republican-led state House of Representatives has pushed through a bill privatizing liquor sales. The state would actually get out of the liquor-selling business and instead amuse itself only by collecting taxes on sales and busting merchants who sold hooch to underage kids. The bill, says Gilroy, faces an uncertain future both in the state Senate and with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has promised to veto any sort of privatization. Wolf, you see, prefers "modernization," which would allow the state to still run stuff but in a less obviously shitty way.

The Republicans behind selling off the state's liquor monopoly have produced estimates showing that the legislation would bring in over $1 billion in one-time sales for licenses and whatnot. On top of that, there would be more money coming in from selling the actual buildings and assets currently owned by the state, plus a regular stream of tax revenue. When they are not trying to scare folks with ridiculous ads like this one, opponents argue something like this: Why sell the cow when you can force customers to buy the milk only from you and then tax it on top of everything else and give out patronage jobs to boot?

Whatever. This really isn't a fight over revenue streams, is it? This should be rightly pushed as an argument over the proper size and scope of government and individual rights. Except with very rare exceptions(and I'm having trouble thinking of any good ones), the state should not be in the business of providing goods and services that the private sector can deliver far more effectively, efficiently, and equitably. On the flip side, the government has no right to keep individuals from selling legal goods and services in accordance with the law.

Such an appeal to first principles may not be a silver bullet (hat tip: Coors Light) against interest-group politics, but it's worth calling out politicians and their enablers for their anti-freedom ways. Especially in a place like Pennsylvania, where so much related to American history took place.

Related vid: "Virginia is for (Liquor) Lovers," or why the Old Dominion should privatize booze sales.