This space has been placid this week, due mainly to the fact that America’s economic debates have crowded any local interests. So here, for the sake of exercising my fingers, is a brief meditation on Pennsylvania’s latest attempt to privatize its liquor stores:
When Republicans swept the Pennsylvania government last year—not only securing the Assembly, Senate and Governorship, but also storming to predominance in appellate courts—and when Governor Corbett announced liquor store privatization as one of his priorities, I assumed this would be a sure thing. This is because I am still young. This movement has failed in the past, and it is no sure thing to succeed this time. Pennsylvania, even during its most pronounced rightward surges, never did have much of a libertarian streak. Our Republicanism is more of the Catholic-school, shut-up-and-get-in-line variety. So instead we have a liquor policy that is an inbred lovechild of our cultural conservatism and our respect for Johnny Law; we don’t mind begging Harrisburg for our vices nearly as much as we ought to.
The plan sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) is simple enough. In fact, it’s not even a deregulation as much as a modified regulation. Rather than running the stores, the state would sell licenses—a` la bars and restaurants—and reduce the taxes on the products. Those tax cuts would include the elimination of the hilariously Jack-Murtha-esque “Johnstown Flood Tax,” which I believe has been collected since 1972 (though I wouldn’t be shocked if it reached back to 1887, when Murtha was a congressional freshman). On the surface this seemed so easy.
But a week ago, I thought it was happening again. Joe Scarnati, the President of the Senate and by extension the number two Republican in the legislature, suddenly threw water on Corbett’s plans. “I don’t think we have allowed the Liquor Control Board to run like a business,” Scarnati said. His solution: rather than privatize the liquor stores, just “take the handcuffs off of them.” When a Democrat speaks this way, it’s frustrating; to hear a Republican say it is downright frightening.
What is the government, really, other than a purveyor of handcuffs? Where handcuffs are not applied, you have a free market. A liquor industry with no handcuffs, as Scarnati envisions, would have no onerous duties slapped on its products, would put no limits on who could sell or when, and would allow local storeowners make their own decisions. In other words, it would be a completely privatized industry. A socialized industry without the handcuffs is like…well, it’s like a set of handcuffs that don’t cuff your hands. A government agency cannot “run like business” because it runs, by its very essence, like an agency.
To hear Mr. Scarnati’s words, which remind me of a county councilman’s from a few months ago who explained “how the free market works,” makes it clear to me how so many bad economic ideas fester in the public consciousness. It calls to mind also several of the awkward and circular arguments in favor of Obamacare, or worse, the ignominious public option, which purported to make healthcare cheaper.
The good news, though, is that Turzai appears to be proceeding apace. He has not introduced the bill yet, but he is touring the state and holding hearings about his proposal. The true test will come when the bill is brought to the floor, vulnerable to the knee-capping of Scarnati and other economic illiterates in Turzai’s own party. Hopefully, between now and then someone can explain to them how to really operate a set of handcuffs.