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North Carolina’s Prohibition-era government monopoly on liquor sales may face its most formidable challenge in decades after last week’s scathing state audit showed widespread waste and incompetence bordering on outright corruption at the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
State Auditor Beth Wood’s report card gives ABC officials an F. The state overpaid a contractor $11.3 million during a 13-year span, shelled out at least $2.1 million for unused space in an empty warehouse and lost track of nearly $300,000 in revenue over a two-year period.
Lawmakers aren’t taking the embarrassing report lying down. State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, has called for replacing the ABC system with a private sales model. Under McGrady’s plan, the state would license and regulate liquor stores, but local government agencies would no longer operate them as insular fiefdoms.
“The ABC code is probably one of the most antiquated parts of North Carolina law, and it dates back to a time when frankly we just didn’t want alcohol — but the feds had turned it over to us,” McGrady told the News & Observer of Raleigh. “So we were one of the most controlled states. I would like to see us go free-market.”
Political will to reform the byzantine booze distribution network is nothing new. Invariably, it’s caught in the crosswinds of religious protest and runs into the buzzsaw of special interests. Wherever a complex bureaucracy exists, a whole lot of middlemen stand to make a buck.
Conservatives, moderates and liberals have all fired darts at the lumbering ABC monolith for decades, but it plods on, seemingly immune to ideological opposition from all sides of the aisle.
“We do not need to be in the business of selling liquor,” pundit Tom Campbell wrote in December 2008, “and the sooner we rid ourselves of this antiquated system, the better all will be.”
John Hood, chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation, gaveled the ABC monopoly out of order on economic and free-market grounds in June 2017.
“Most drinkers aren’t drunks, most drunks aren’t dangerous and most governmental attempts to save people from themselves create more problems than they solve,” Hood wrote.
The News & Observer pointed to longstanding opposition from the Christian Action League and the Baptist denomination, groups that cite the social ills of alcoholism and advocate for strict controls on the sale of spirits.
We understand some people of faith find drinking to be immoral, but there’s nothing biblical about swapping individual Christians’ conscience for dictates from the proverbial Romans. When the state isn’t padlocking the liquor cabinet shut, it’s prying it open to make a profit.
A vice doesn’t become a virtue by tossing tax collectors into the mix. From liquor to gambling, restrictionists can’t explain why state actors are presumed to be better gatekeepers than private owners moderated by the self-interest of staying in business, a natural curb on irresponsible excess.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory advocated for the separation of hooch and state, declaring in 2010 that “Government should have teachers on the payroll, not clerks to sell booze.” Yet during his term, reforming the ABC system failed to materialize as a priority.
Advocates of the status quo might point to local ABC boards’ support of substance abuse prevention programs, though there’s no reason a tax on private profits couldn’t benefit such worthwhile causes just as handsomely.
Even as North Carolina surges forward on many fronts, becoming the 10th-largest state by population and bolstering its reputation as a business-friendly place, we remain an outlier where alcohol is concerned. Only 16 other states have public liquor monopolies. If government control correlated with fewer impaired driving deaths or otherwise mitigated risk in some profound and irrefutable way, wouldn’t the scandal-wracked ABC regime be trumpeting that in a nonstop public relations blitz?
In a 2008 editorial, The Wilson Times called for privatizing the outdated ABC system. We echo that call today, but given the current dysfunction in our General Assembly, we aren’t holding our breath.
Responsible drinkers and teetotalers alike can support liquor sales privatization. More personal freedom and more economic freedom deserve a toast no matter what’s in your cup.