While you wouldn't expect a communist system to exist in the United States, the liquor laws of Pennsylvania provide an interesting data point. The system of stores that alcoholic beverages in the commonwealth is owned by the state government, and it is illegal to compete. There are two kinds of stores that will sell alcohol; beverage stores, which only sell beer and other light drinks, and state stores, that sell the hard stuff. This law was introduced as a kind of extreme form of sin tax, and has stayed on the books because of its popularity with certain religious groups, despite its overwhelming disfavor with the general public.

This system suffers from the typical problems of communism:

  1. Selection is awful. Distribution choices are not made at the local level, and if the store doesn't have what you're looking for, you have to pay a hefty delivery charge to get that special Merlot for your family reunion dinner.
  2. Distribution of stores per area is limited by the population of the county, in theory. In practice, pork-barrel politics has introduced enough exceptions to render the actual distribution somewhat arbitrary. At one time, there were less stores in Pennsylvania than there were in the city of Dallas.
  3. Service sucks. By law. Employees are forbidden to recommend any specific brand of alcohol.
  4. High prices. There are a ton of taxes that you have to pay on your alcohol. An expose was done on this in the 1980s. It turned out that some of the taxes were highly suspect; for instance a 'flood relief' tax was going to pay for flooding damage that had been done in the 1930s.
  5. Poor management. It's hard to imagine losing money when you're the only person in town that can sell alcohol, but somehow Pennsylvania manages to do it.
Many state residents get around the law by driving to a neighboring state and purchasing their alcohol there, or by buying from local microbreweries. It should be noted that arrests for drunk driving and underage drinking are not significantly lower in PA than in other states.

The single most bizzare thing about Pennsylvania liquor stores:
They still sell to those that are underage.

Let me explain. I live in State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State's main campus. I am 23, and have never been carded at the liquor stores (I prefer wine and liquor to beer, which is sold in beer stores here). I'd seen some pretty young-looking people in the liquor stores, but I figured that when they reached the checkout things would hit the fan, so to speak.

Once, I needed some beer to make beer bread, and went to a beer store. There, I was carded. I mentioned to the cashier that I had never been carded by the state liquor stores as I handed him my card. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, then told me that it didn't surprise him at all. Apparently, the state liquor stores are willing to sell to minors, at least here.

In my mind, this points to a complete failure of the the idea behind a state-run liquor store -- who watches the watchmen?

But then again, all of this makes sense.

For the vast majority of alcohol vendors, the only real incentive they have as businesspeople not to sell alcohol to minors is the threat of punishment (in the form of fines and/or being closed down) from the government.

If the government owns the given store, the employees have no stake in the profits whatsoever, and the likelyhood of the government fining itself seems pretty slim to me.

So what do we get from all of this?

  • We have a law no one cares about.
  • We have a special governement control that no one wants entirely to enforce said law.
  • But in the end it only aids those wishing to break the law to do so easily.
That's brilliant. I now think the Pennsylvania Commonwealth only exists for the benefit of sixteen year old troublemakers.

Getting a beverage license in Pennsylvania is kind of like acquiring good storefront property in Manhattan, say on 5th avenue, or a seat on the NYSE.

There are a limited number of these puppies, and the waiting list is atrocious. Rumor had it that a local club owner paid $250,000 to another bar owner for his.

It has been said that religious groups will ante up for these, in hopes that they can render then useless, at least for a time.

Of course, I'm skeptical. I think they use them so that the cops don't bust their secret underground sex clubs for something so lame as dispensing alcohol without a license.

The "State Stores" as they're called in the vernacular actually go by the attention-getting name of "Wines & Spirits". Well, at least with a name like that, you know what you're getting. The one semi-sensible liquor law we have in this Commonwealth is that as of 9 February 2003, a select number (I believe it was originally around ten percent) of the state's stores may be open for business on Sunday. I have not been to one on a Sunday yet, mostly because as a financially-strapped college student, I don't have a car, and the closest one open on Sundays is about fifteen miles away. Supposedly, they're on a trial programme for the time being; if the Religious Right can be placated for a few years, they may open more.

Here's another screwed-up alcohol law we've got: six-packs may only be sold by bars--if you go to a legally licensed beer distributor, you can only buy by the case

In Pennsylvania all the liquor stores are state-owned, the bars must have a liquor license (bars can only sell up to 2 six-packs to any one customer), and beer distributors are similarly licensed.

Yet there are some significant upsides. Since there are only a few distributors, there is a bigger niche for specialization in beer distribution. In many states most beer is sold in grocery or convenience stores; there are few true beer distributors. This makes it difficult (in those states) to find good beer (beer that is well-made and well-cared-for). In Pennsylvania there are a lot of distributors, and most of them are likely to have something good.

I can't help but think the liquor laws have something to do with Pennsylvania's microbrew situation, as well. As bitter_engineer alluded to, there are a lot of microbrews in Pennsylvania - including some of the oldest and some of the best on the eastern United States. If it were easier to buy liquor or bad beer, perhaps this would not be the case.

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