Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Alchemy of Intentions

Reads a sign on the patio of my local grocer's:

Retail Alcoholic Beverages Not To Be Consumed on the Premises 

Naturally, alcohol by-the-glass is quite available. You can have a slice of pizza and some on-tap beer to wash it down with, but if you dare unplug the spigot of that box of Chablis you bought inside, you flaunt the good laws of the Commonwealth.

Statutes against public drunkenness dabble in the gray area between what Hayek referred to as "law" (the spontaneous ordering of society's rules, emerging over time through trial and error) and "legislation" (mandates from a legislature, seldom subjected to the rigorous review of time and experience). Surely there have been the equivalent of drunk tanks for time immemorial—you absolutely must let someone three sheets to the wind sleep it off lest he become a danger to his own person and the safety of those around him. That's not particularly controversial.

However, using common sense, common law proscriptions against public intoxication as justification for treating beer differently if it comes from a tap compared to coming from a bottle smells a little skunky. Does the alcohol content rise during the bottling process? Perhaps my experience with home brewing has misled me, but my before-and-after specific gravity readings have never so indicated. Perhaps it's a monitoring issue. If the customer has to approach the counter every time he wishes to refresh his tasty beverage, the vendor has a chance to gauge whether or not to cut him off: a chance that does not exist if he bought all his liquor beforehand in the grocery store.

This argument is not entirely without merit, so the next question is whether or not the marginal risk-weighted costs of drunk and disorderly conduct for the consumption of retail-purchased alcohol (net of on-tap service) are high enough to justify the direct costs plus all the hidden opportunity costs of having an alcoholic beverage control department.

Perhaps I was out sick the day they issued the philosophers' stone that allows for the transmutation of good intentions into desirable outcomes, but I can't for the life of me divine the alchemy by which the political rents generated by the VA ABC result in cheerful temperance at the Fair Lakes Whole Foods. Instances of drunken buffoonery are everywhere and always a purely local phenomenon. The grocers, not an alcohol control board, know best the specific circumstances of their business and are far better equipped to handle the particular, idiosyncratic desires of their customers than a gang of state employees.

And I don't even drink. Sheesh.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?