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Pennsylvania's Medieval Wine and Spirit Laws

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On March 22, the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives voted to end the legacy of Prohibition in the Keystone State. The House voted to privatize wine and liquor sales, a positive move that promises to move the state into the 21st century.

Lightning did not strike the state capitol when this happened, although it might as well have because now we are seeing state store liquor clerks defending the state store system despite the fact that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians want privatization. On a human level, one can understand why the state store clerks are rising up in protest: they want to save their jobs, an understandable albeit selfish sentiment that pretty much ignores the wishes of the majority: to get the state out of the business of selling alcohol.

Unfortunately, the longer the state is involved in the sale of alcohol, the harder it will be to uproot that alliance. We are seeing the first effects of that rupture now.

The fact that every Democrat in the Pennsylvania House voted against privatization is a curious thing indeed. Think about it: Democrats voting with the status quo, to retain an antiquated system with roots going back to the days of bathtub gin? Aren't Democrats supposed to side with the will of the people?

Privatization, generally, is not a good thing. Privatization ruined the airline industry, it threatens to destroy the U.S. Post Office (and replace it with expensive Fed Ex style deliveries) and it is always ready to pounce on Social Security. Yet privatization in this case is a good thing, and the Pennsylvania Democrats who voted against the measure stooped to a new low when they stated that it (privatization) was "as bad morally as it was fiscally," and that "increased access to drinking would lead to increased drinking and the social ills that come with it."

What?

As a registered Democrat, I don't believe I've ever heard a Democrat say that something could be "bad morally." The "bad morally" phrase is usually reversed for right of center Republicans on any number of social issues. Democrats, at least in the abstract, are supposed to be moral relativists, so this "moral" thing is peculiar indeed.

Murdering your neighbor or trashing his/her property might be "bad morally," but how is a greater access to a bottle of wine for a dinner party, "bad morally?" This is what those Pennsylvania Democrats are saying: If wine and spirits are sold everywhere, the average person will fall prey to temptation and desire to overindulge. This is a Prohibition mindset that the state has been fostering since the state store system began. But civilization will not fall if a bottle of Merlot is sold next to the Tastykakes in the local grocery store.

Responsible citizens should not be held hostage because there are undisciplined folks who do fall prey to sloppy overindulgence (temptation).

I would have had more respect for the Democrats who voted against privatization if they had said that they were concerned about the loss of union jobs or the loss of PLCB annual profits totaling some 170 million which wind up in state coffers. Instead they blabbered on about "social ills."
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has done a lot to adapt to the modern age, such as initializing Sunday sales and regular wine tasting events in random stores, but it is simply not enough.

For anyone who has traveled to New York, California and to the south -- where wine can be purchased in local supermarkets -- Pennsylvania's LCB system seems like an H.G. Wells trip into medieval times. Walk the streets of Manhattan, and you'll find countless little shops that sell wine. Travel to Canada and you'll see wine for sale beside the candy bars and pound cake in neighborhood convenience stores.

Decades ago when you walked into a Philadelphia state store you had to ask a guy behind the counter what you wanted. They had state store catalogs with numbers; the customer would give the guy a number, he'd disappear into the back and come back with the bottle. The operation was run like a pawn shop. Not only that, but by law the guy behind the counter couldn't give you any recommendations.

Some poll numbers since then have favored privatization even more, although politicians -- in this case, Democrats -- never seem to listen to their constituents.

Prohibition is over, and Pennsylvania needs to move on.