Private Liquor Sales in Washington State: I Jumped Ship

November 27th, 2010

We’ve got state liquor stores here in Washington for everything but beer and wine. I have to go to one to get booze instead of patronizing the store half a block away. I probably go five, maybe ten times a year, but I have friends who are cocktail aficionados who go far more often. I hope they’ll forgive me.

There are at least half a dozen great arguments for making liquor sales private like they are in most states — starting with free-market efficiencies. There’d probably be somewhat more commerce and general prosperity if they were private — and hence tax revenues eventually, over the long term. (Managing the state budget in the short term without the liquor-store revenues would definitely be an issue.)

Plus convenience and greenness — less driving for most, and less wildly annoying, time-consuming extra bus stops/trips for those without cars. (Not very “progressive,” in that sense.) For rural folks, far less.

Plus selection: the state stores will order special stuff for you, but only if you buy a certain quantity. And if you don’t plan ahead, at best you end up calling/driving around to different stores. (There’s a big one on Fourth Ave. South that happens to be fairly convenient for me, but sometimes what I want is at some other store.) At worst — if you don’t live in Seattle, for instance — you do without.

And customer service. The state liquor store employees tend to be officious and sometimes rude. You sure as heck don’t ask them about the subtle nuances of different single-malts. (Though if that’s what you’re after, you’re better off in any case going to Zig-Zag to see Murray, our local hero and America’s Best Bartender.)

Oh, and yeah: and the booze would be cheaper.

So when two separate ballot initiatives came up to privatize liquor sales (one pretty favorable to the vested, tiered distributor interests, but the other pretty good), the choice was obvious, right? Go for it. That was my thinking.

I’m really kind of embarrassed to admit that when I sat down with the ballot (Washington has all mail-in voting, so you sit at your kitchen table to vote; it ROCKS), I voted against both initiatives.

Why? First, going to the liquor store isn’t a big issue for me. I don’t very go often, and don’t want many special items. (It’s all about me, right?)

But even more: it just seemed like Seattle wouldn’t be as nice a place to live with private liquor sales. It would be way easier for people in general, and kids in particular, to get hard liquor, there’d be more (public) drunkenness and drunk driving (and drunk-driving deaths and injuries), more alcoholism, lots of really ugly, garish liquor stores like in California et al — just in general a less-nice place.

I know: you can tell I’m getting old and stodgy.

Truth be told, this is what I thought about:

Go ahead: accuse me of selling out my principles (and my friends) in favor of my (practical but also — I admit it — pathetically aesthetic) preferences.

Guilty as charged.

(Both initiatives were defeated.)

  1. Bill White
    November 27th, 2010 at 11:24 | #1

    FWIW, the New Hampshire State liquor stores have pretty good prices. It’s also not clear that opening the market like this would result in long term lower prices from the effects of competition. In New York City for years trash collection was controlled by the Mob. Needless to say, there was little competition, and prices were very high. One very brave guy infiltrated the mob’s trash collection racket with a wire, and was able to provide evidence which convicted all of the business. The prices fell substantially, as a lot of small entrepreneurs got into the business. But then, large service companies got into the business, bought out the small companies and established an oligopoly, which effectively eliminated price competition. Now the price of trash collection is as high as it was when it was run by the Mob. There is a very interesting first person account of this on NPR’s radio program All Things Considered someplace. I don’t have the link at hand, however.

  2. Iyer
    December 2nd, 2010 at 23:58 | #2

    I agree with the ‘garish liquor’ signs that are littered in CA. Surprisingly there is no consolidation of liquor stores in CA. Must not be a big ticket item for big players.

    Q.. Are the state liquor stores profitable? (include their pensions etc)

  3. December 4th, 2010 at 02:56 | #3

    Where I live liquor stores close at 9 on weekdays and no sales on Sunday, and only 3.2 is allowed to be sold at convenience stores, whereas in Texas you can get 6% beer at convenience stores. You can get alcohol on Sundays but only at licensed restaurants where it is overpriced and there is a chance some ninny might stop the tap if you were “overdoing” it a little. Probably locations are easier than Washington state.

    I guess I shouldn’t admit these things online, but I do tend to like my alcohol. I think I’m entitled from time to time to “escape reality” for a few hours and in my opinion as long as I am not driving a car, beating up a female, or in general hurting others in a major way, I think there are worse vices a person could have. In my opinion smoking causes many more deaths, expenses, and probs in our society. I do see it as a type of “medication”, and frankly people rarely ask (in a serious fashion) the questionwhat society would be like without alcohol. I would also argue if you added all the damage legal prescription pills do to people is much worse than alcohol, but doctors don’t get a piece of that action or free trips to medical symposiums in Hawaii for every bottle sold (the self-destruction of Prozac comes to mind).

    This country has gone through Prohibition, but I think that only gives a slight measure of what we would see today. In my opinion societal pressures are much higher than the days of Prohibition (not that times were a picnic then, just saying).

    Anyway, I am biased as a guy who likes to get sauced from time to time, but I have a right to my opinion.

  4. December 4th, 2010 at 06:30 | #4

    I’ll get pretty happy at dinner parties here and there, or out with friends, and I have a nicely stocked liquor cabinet that gets used fairly often. But even so, I don’t go to the liquor store often. It would piss me off if I couldn’t buy a cold six pack or bottle of wine pretty much when and where I feel like it, but — selfish me — going to the liquore store now and then isn’t a problem for me. Like going to the dry cleaners or a specialty foods store or fish market.

  5. December 4th, 2010 at 06:31 | #5

    @Ted K
    And yes you’re right about all the negatives of liquor vis-a-vis other ingestibles.

  6. January 18th, 2011 at 03:41 | #6

    Come on! This is textbook externality stuff here. What do you do with an externality? Either ban the offending behavior or put a price on it. Whichever suits the situation.

    I’ve lived in Seattle and I can come up with two examples right away. First, the noise ordinances were instantaneous in effect. Remember the out of control boom-boom stereos and the obnoxious Harleys? And, second, do you think strip clubs all have no windows by accident?

    On the social costs I don’t like the idea of jacking up prices. For example, here in Quebec they have a price floor on beer (wine and liquor are only available at the provincial store – although they softened up and let grocery stores sell a pitifully small selection of crappy wine which is fine is you like the taste of paint thinner). And the price difference is astounding: a 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon is $11.99 here compared to $5.99 (as I recall) in Seattle.

    Now, this is supposed to keep the poor from drinking too much and beating their kids and whatnot but I am skeptical. In fact, I think all it does is makes alcoholic poor people spend much more on beer than they do on their kids. They’re going to drink beer either way, why make it cost more? And of course they high prices are just a minor nuisance for the rest of us.

    The same goes for cigarettes. They keep pushing up the taxes until, lo and behold, gangsters start taking over the cigarette market. And a recent study showed that changing the taxes has no significant effect on smokers’ behavior (http://www.acda-aqda.ca/HEC_MTL_TAX_STUDY_-_EN_final_vers.pdf). The study was commissioned by the mini-mart industry but it was hotly debated and the results look pretty solid.

    The ingenious thing they came up with here is a law requiring that stores keep tobacco products covered. And, based on my own experience, I think this is going to a large effect on smokers successfully quitting. You see, I have quit smoking twice since 2006. The first time was before the law and the second after. It makes it way easier to stay off the death sticks if you never see them taunting you behind the counter every time you buy something at the mini-mart.

    As an economist I like the market and all that but sometimes the government just has to step in and put a stop certain behavior.

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