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It's high time for N.C. to bring on private liquor stores

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Liberal or not, this time around, I'm in favor of privatizing a government function. I'm talking about liquor stores. The recent hoopla over the liquor distiller who paid $9,000 for Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials' dinners eventually veered into a discussion about replacing North Carolina's familiar "ABC stores" with privately owned liquor marts. So let's discuss it.

There are several arguments for and against taking away the job of selling booze from the state, but I want to see private liquor stores here for one main reason: Consumers would end up with a broader selection and at lower prices. As Lincoln or someone once said, lower booze bills for the people, by the people, and so forth.

Supporters of the current N.C. system -- in which the state runs liquor stores in communities where voters have approved the sale of alcoholic beverages -- say things are just fine the way they are. They point to money from the sale of liquor that currently benefits N.C. citizens, particularly in funds to combat alcoholism. They note the jobs that would be lost to privatization. And they remind everyone that someone has to monitor drink sales in local bars and restaurants, now done by the county ABC board. They also point out, as Parks Helms, chair of the Mecklenburg ABC board recently did, that if liquor stores are privatized, the result would be "a system that has little or no control over a product that has the potential to threaten the health and stability of individuals and families."

Supporters of switching to private liquor stores say the city and county would rake in tens of millions in new property tax revenue per year, liquor-related political cronyism would disappear, and besides, free markets are the all-American way, etc., etc. I can't say that I buy any of these arguments for either side, but let's take a look.

First, about the funds we get for alcoholism treatment and prevention, which come to about $1.5 million per year: Surely if liquor sales were privatized, some formula could be worked out so that some of the profits could be diverted to the same programs.

Second, the jobs lost to privatization would no doubt be made up by new jobs created by the store owners.

Third, nothing is stopping each county from keeping its ABC board, which could continue monitoring liquor sales in bars and restaurants. Similarly, the state could easily stipulate that liquor stores can only be set up in areas that currently have ABC stores, or in communities that approve liquor sales by referendum, the process the state uses now.

Fourth, Helms' argument that privatizing liquor sales would create an out-of-control surplus of drunks is the same old tired puritanical notion that's been thrown around every time any Southern community wants to allow liquor sales. It's nothing more than archaic nonsense, unbefitting a serious argument.

Now, the pro-privatization arguments. The city and county probably would see a windfall in property tax revenues from private liquor sales, but I don't know that that's enough of an advantage, in and of itself, to dictate a switch.

As for getting rid of political cronyism, it sounds good, but who's naïve enough to believe a privatized system wouldn't entail corruption at some levels of the booze chain?

And as for the "free enterprise" argument in favor of privatization, some things are better provided by the state, such as public transportation, fire departments, roads and other necessities. In other words, the free market isn't a one-size-fits-all panacea for every situation, libertarian fantasies notwithstanding. With that said, however, I can't see any compelling, i.e., publicly beneficial, reason why the state must have total control of liquor sales. Efficient, sufficient regulation should be enough to protect the public; after all, the state regulates the use of automobiles, but it doesn't actually sell cars, does it?

So I return to my original argument, a purely consumer-driven one about selection and price. Let me put it in the form of a question: Why is the Frugal McDoogal parking lot at Carowinds teeming every weekend with cars sporting N.C. plates? For many of those Charlotte-residing customers, it's the prices, significantly lower than N.C.'s state-determined ones, that draw them south. For others, it's the fact that they can buy beer, wine and/or liquor in one store.

I'm not a big drinker, so my trips to either an ABC store or Frugal's aren't that frequent. But I am a picky drinker, and when I want something specific -- usually Maker's Mark bourbon, a particular high-gravity Belgian beer, or a bottle of Armagnac -- I know I can only get one of those, the bourbon, at an ABC store. I've got Brawley's nearby for the Belgian beer, but for my sort-of annual bottle of Armagnac (a delicious 20-year-old brandy from southwest France), I have to head out of state. Aannddd, as long as I'm in South Carolina, I'd be crazy not to take advantage of their prices on the bourbon and beer, too. Another thing: Employees in the larger private liquor stores are often helpful and knowledgeable, as opposed to ABC store workers who, although not unfriendly, generally restrict their verbalizations to the word "Next."

So, in short, let the state set new levies to offset lost revenue and keep anti-alcoholism efforts going, keep on monitoring bars and eateries, and other than that, get out of the way of what a New Jersey friend calls "real liquor stores."

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