Guarded
Why does the state control liquor sales?
Published September 5, 2006

Thanks to the kind folks at Conneaut Cellars Winery, I was recently made aware of some changes in Pennsylvania law that will allow determined citizens—and I do mean determined!—to purchase wine from out-of-state internet distributors. Thus, Pennsylvania and the PA Liquor Control Board continue their slow, limping stagger into a more liberalized age of drinking.

This column, I’m afraid, requires a disclaimer. Though I don’t necessarily agree with the drinking age of 21, I agree there should be some drinking age; and laws limiting public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and drunk driving are just plain common sense. Also, I have met some very friendly, knowledgeable staff at the PLCB stores; I have nothing against those fine folks.

What I do object to is the archaic legal structure that governs the sale of alcohol in this state. The entire idea that a government monopoly is in charge of all sales of wine and liquor in the state should rub any American the wrong way, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to deal with all the inanities and inefficiencies that any monopoly, public or private, inevitable incurs.

What inanities? Not being able to buy beer at the same store where I buy wine and liquor. Not being able to buy beer and possibly even wine at a grocery store, so I can save gas by only having to go to one store instead of three. Not being able to buy a six-pack of beer instead of a case, except by going to a restaurant and paying a ridiculous amount more per bottle or can. Not being able to purchase wine from other states via the internet.

There’s more, but now we’ve reached a spot where the state has made an effort to meet customer demands: Internet wine sales have arrive in Pennsylvania. Wait! Don’t run off to your computer yet. You haven’t heard the details, and believe me, you want to hear ‘em.

First off, you’d best not order from any old wine website. You need to go to the PLCB website and check the list of licensed Direct Wine Shippers. There are already 29 with more on the way! Next, the wine you want to buy can’t be available from the state at any of its stores. Thought you were going to get a case of wine at half the inflated state store price? Think again, citizen!

Now, specify the state store where you’d like to have the wine delivered. You didn’t think you could have it shipped to your house, did you, without the state watching everything you do and making sure you pay all applicable taxes? Oh, I forgot to mention that part: you’d better add on a $4.50 handling fee (in addition to whatever shipping charge you’ve paid to the Direct Wine Shipper), and 6% state sales tax, not to mention the 18% state liquor tax. You read that right: 24% tax!

That case of wine you bought at just $5.00 a bottle seemed like a good bargain, but now (using Wine.com as a test case) you’ll pay an additional $39 to get that $60 case of wine to your home, not including the time, effort, and gas required to pick it up at your nearest PLCB store. That’s only a 65% premium. What a bargain!

Oh, and when you pick up your order, don’t forget to sign your affidavit, confirming that you’re of legal age to drink and plan on using your 9-litre-maximum order for personal consumption only. You wouldn’t want to circumvent the state’s monopoly and sell that wine. Heavens! Your humiliating, overpriced adventure complete, you can head home, secure in the knowledge that you are still paying more for your drink than most of the rest of the country.

The only logical solution to the silliness of Pennsylvania’s wine laws is privatization. You’ll find that there are some areas—utilities, emergency services, schools and the like—where I do not support privatization, but when we’re dealing with what is solely a money-making enterprise, I see no reason for the state to involve itself.

Laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol are an unfortunate necessity, given the irresponsibility of average humans and the tendency of drunk drivers to kill innocent people on the roads. Even accepting that, however, I see no legitimate reason to allow the state to continue its stranglehold on this industry.

The only purpose it serves is punishing Pennsylvania’s consumers, the large majority of whom are law-abiding citizens who just want to enjoy a legal beverage. Let’s rid ourselves of this ungainly beast.