2022 Election, Ari Armstrong, Business/Economy, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Let grocery stores sell wine; the case for Prop 125

When I was a child growing up in Palisade, I never wondered why people called part of town “Vineland.” There were no vines back then, just fruit trees, including the peach trees my grandfather lovingly tended for most of his life. Of course there were grape vines in the Valley before Prohibition destroyed that industry. Eventually the grapes grew again to rejoin the peaches, apples, pears, and other fruits. People are free to choose what to grow on their land, and Colorado again has a vibrant wine industry.

Now, 89 years after the repeal of Prohibition, we are still dealing with its remnants. Back in 2008, then-Governor Bill Ritter signed a law finally allowing liquor stores to do business on Sundays. Starting in 2019, grocery stores finally could sell regular beer, rather than only low-alcohol beer. Now, with Proposition 125, voters have an opportunity to let grocers sell wine too. It’s about time.

Freedom of choice

People have a right to associate by consent, free from political force. Producers of wine have a right to sell their products directly or through whatever retailers will carry them. (We can talk about Colorado’s absurd distribution laws another day.) Consumers have a right to trade with the sellers of their choice. And grocers have a right to stock their shelves with whatever other producers wish to sell them. Just as farmers have a right to grow grapes on their land and turn them into wine if they want, so these other parties also deserve freedom of choice.

The only proper limits on trade serve to protect people’s rights. For example, sellers may not defraud their customers by misrepresenting goods. Government properly places limits on inherently dangerous items that easily could harm others, such as explosives, and sets some age restrictions for things like guns and alcohol. None of these concerns apply to grocers selling wine to adults, so trade should be unrestricted.

Maybe someone will claim that grocery stores might be more likely to sell wine to minors or that the sale of alcoholic beverages generally should be restricted as much as possible to limit the harmful effects of alcohol, such as drunk driving. But there’s not much reason to think that allowing grocers to sell wine would make such problems worse.

If the concern is that some people harm others while drunk, whether by driving recklessly or by acting violently, the answer is to better-enforce laws specifically against those rights-violating acts, not to punish the many innocent for the crimes of the few. Likewise, the answer to the dangers of texting while driving is not to restrict the sale of cell phones or cars but to enforce laws against distracted driving.

But no one really believes that letting grocers sell wine will unleash mayhem in our communities, any more than letting them sell regular beer did. Hardly anyone even pretends to take such arguments seriously anymore.

What we see instead of serious arguments against wine in grocery stores are naked appeals to protectionism—the use of government force to harm competitors. It’s a lot easier to stay in business if you can send out swarms of officers to harass your competitors if they dare sell those products that you have special government permission to sell.

A recent article in Colorado Politics is titled, “Liquor stores coalition argues wine in grocery stores will put them out of business.” Let’s pause there. The claim is that, if grocers were free to sell wine to people, people would want to buy it there rather than at liquor stores, to such a degree that liquor stores would have to shut down.

In other words, the claim is that liquor stores are so horrible, and their customers hate them so much, that they can survive only if government threatens violence against their would-be competitors. Imagine the utter self-contempt that a store owner would have to feel to seriously believe that sort of argument. Meanwhile, any liquor store owner with a shred of self-respect and pride in their establishment will seek to convince their customers that their store offers value even though customers could go elsewhere.

The Arizona example

The claim that grocery wine would put liquor stores out of business also is hyperventilating nonsense. We heard the same sort of claims with the introduction of regular beer at grocery stores.

Try this as an exercise. If you’ve ever been to Arizona—apparently no one in Colorado’s anti-liberty liquor coalition has—you probably noticed that grocers there already can sell not only regular beer and wine but “hard” liquor. I pulled up a Tucson Safeway store at random and, sure enough, the store lists “beer, wine & spirit hours.” So, obviously, because grocers in Arizona sell beer, wine, and liquor, there are no independent liquor stores, right? Of course you would have to be a complete moron to believe that.

Go ahead and do an internet search for “liquor store” in any Arizona city of your choice. For Tucson I pulled up such establishments as Tony’s Liquors, 22nd Street Liquor, Liquor Express, Roy’s Corner Liquor, Gus’s Liquor Store, etc. I called a couple of liquor stores at random. A manager of one independently owned store, Jesse, explained to me how his store competes against grocery stores. The story is what you’d expect.

“I have way more variety than the grocery stores; I carry stuff that grocery stores don’t,” Jesse said. “They just sell the basic stuff, you know?” He did concede, “On the prices I can’t compete” because big grocery stores “order millions of dollars worth” of product every year. But Jesse’s store competes not only by offering greater variety but by staying open later, offering a drive-through, and focusing on customer service, he told me. The way I’d describe it is that Jesse succeeds by taking pride in his work and respecting his customers.

The nannyist coalition in Colorado does resort to some fear-mongering in the Colorado Politics article. Metzger writes, “The coalition also raised safety concerns about allowing third-party companies, such as UberEats or DoorDash, to deliver alcohol, saying it will open the door for underaged drinking and alcohol abuse.”

But there’s no good reason to think that the employees of liquor stores are especially skilled at blocking improper sales. Anyway, the solution is to enforce the laws and crack down on irresponsible sellers of all varieties, not to impose protectionism in the name of safety.

In my experience, grocery stores have been militant about demanding ID for alcohol sales. Worriers might find some comfort in a recent story from Denver7: “DoorDash drivers will soon require customers to hand over their ID cards and have them scanned to complete alcohol purchases. DoorDash also requires drivers not to provide alcohol to intoxicated customers and to only leave products with those over age 21.

My bottle, my choice

The economist Bruce Yandle came up with the “Bootleggers and Baptists” theory to explain why surprising coalitions sometimes support economic restrictions. During Prohibition, the bootleggers enjoyed their black-market profits, while the nannyists enjoyed self-righteously wagging their fingers at people. Natural allies.

With the new coalition against grocery wine, we see aspects of both arguments. We need to restrict wine sales “for the children,” they pretend, but at the same time they alone need to sell wine to protect their bottom line. What a farce. This is more about whine than wine.

In the end, the issue comes down to this: My bottle, my choice.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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