"If the major opportunities for future growth of government lie in the area of conventional taxation, are there any defenses available to the citizenry? ... Perhaps the most fruitful advice comes in two parts. The first piece of advice is to avoid war and the rumor of war: this is history's greatest boon to the tax man. ... The second piece of advice is to seek ways of inhibiting government's ability conveniently to increase its collections. Possibly the very increase in that ability that is in prospect can be turned to account by a constitutional provision which forbade the income tax, and perhaps even the storage of information regarding individual incomes by third parties, including government." ~ Benjamin Ward
The United States of Prohibition
As I've said a couple of times in this column, I'm leaving New Jersey after 26 years when I get married in August. My soon-to-be wife and I are leasing a townhouse in a magical paradise called Pennsylvania. In fact, we began moving stuff in this past weekend. We won't be living there till after the wedding, though. We don't want to live in sin. But anyway, all the shuffling around I've done lately has led me to think long and hard about the way laws differ from state to state -- especially when it comes to liquor laws. Some states are better than others, but none are ideal. All want to stand between you and your idea of a good time.
Take New Jersey. We make it tough to buy beer. Does this surprise you? It shouldn't. We make it tough to do just about anything. Buying beer is just an example.
Here, if you want to bring beer home for consumption, you're only allowed to buy it in a beer, wine, and liquor store. To me, this is like saying you can't buy a lawn mower except in a lawn mower, shovel, and garden hoe store. It's like saying you can't buy an ice pick except in an ice pick, anvil, and murder weapon warehouse. How inconvenient. Whatever I buy, I should be able to buy at Target and Wal-Mart. And if I can't buy it at Target and Wal-Mart, it should be Target and Wal-Mart -- not a room full of empty suits in Trenton -- deciding why.
That's not how it works, though. No. Because that would be too easy.
Also in New Jersey, liquor stores are forced to close at 10 p.m. So suppose for just a second that it's 9:45 when you decide you want a beer. What are your options? Well, you can race to the store, and risk getting a ticket in a state with three types of doubled-fine zones, or you can go to a bar, where liquor is served until 2. Which is fine if you want to go to a bar, but what if you don't? What if you don't like bars? What if you don't like the idea of drinking and driving home?
"So what?" you say. "Decide to drink earlier."
That's just my point. What's it your business what time I decide to drink? What's it the State of New Jersey's business? What are you, my mom and dad now? Are you going to tell me when I can't have ice cream, too?
What if I had a night job? What if I worked late just to keep my family fed? Are you going to tell me I'm not allowed to have a beer because I get off at 11:15? That's garbage. Complete and utter trash.
Then there's Pennsylvania.
Now, here's a state with a much freer spirit than New Jersey. There are lots of things you can do in Pennsylvania that you can't do in my homeland. For example, it's easier to buy fireworks and guns. But the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the Delaware River. Pennsylvania has some pretty zany liquor laws of its own. If you're looking for a six-pack -- no problem. Head down to the corner deli. But a case of beer? Forget it. That's an altogether separate trip to the beer distributor, where, by law, they sell cases but can't sell six-packs.
Imagine having separate supermarkets for Coca Cola and Diet Coke. That's the kind of law this is.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. I happen to like beer distributors. They're like little warehouses, the best of which are drive-thru. You can't beat that. It's one of the greatest ideas of all time. You pull in, pop the trunk, and tell the guy what you want. He loads it up for you. You don't even have to get out of your car. It's wonderful! But suppose you're buying a case of beer for a party. And suppose you want to serve wines and spirits, too. Well, you can want 'em all you want, but you can't buy 'em here. That'll require yet another stop on your way home. This time you've got to stop at a State Store.
That's right. A State Store. And, no, the name isn't deceiving. The state -- I'm sorry, commonwealth -- of Pennsylvania is in the business of getting people blitzed, and has been since the end of Prohibition. State-run establishments control the flow of wines and spirits statewide. And you're not even allowed to buy wine outside the state -- where it's cheaper -- and bring it back across state lines. Why? Because then the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board wouldn't get its cut.
When the mob monopolized liquor like this, we called it illegal. When a state does it, we call it the law.
Pennsylvania knows how annoying this is, but they won't give up the ship. There's too much money in it. So instead they're just trying to keep up with the times. To that end, the PLCB now runs an online catalogue, complete with Chairman's Selections chosen by -- you guessed it -- board chairman Jonathan Newman. This probably sounds pretty good, though, right? What could be easier than ordering online? Well, not so fast: Web orders aren't sent to your home. They're sent to a State Store of your choosing, and you've got to go pick them up. So much for convenience. Somehow, ordering wine is now a 12-step program.
And listen, for what it's worth, I'm not sure I trust the Chairman's Selections, either. I remember the story of Socrates, and I don't like the idea of drinking something suggested by the government. So thanks, but no thanks. I'll pass.
You know what I do like, though? I like New York. Of the three states where I regularly buy beer, New York is the best. You still need to go to a separate store in order to buy wines and spirits. That stinks. But you can buy beer in a gas station. They even let you buy it in a grocery store. And why shouldn't they? There's no reason why Garden State grocers can't sell beer, too. I'm not buying any arguments about "the children." If you're worried about kids getting their hands on a longneck, don't sell it to them. And if you're worried they're going to steal it, that's another problem altogether. It's called theft. Look into loss prevention. Problem solved.
As far as I'm concerned, the only thing better than consumer freedom is an ice cold beer. Lawmakers should get out of the beer business and leave the drinking to professionals. After a long weekend of unpacking boxes, hanging up pictures, and tripping over ottomans, that would be something I could drink to.