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Bootleggers, Baptists, Unions, Unions, and Small Grocers

Here in Washington State, hard liquor can only be purchased at dreary, state-run liquor stores. Most have DMV-ish levels of charm, DMV-ish levels of customer service, DMV-ish hours, DMV-ish selection, and DMV-ish prices.

Every few years someone will propose getting the state out of the liquor-store business, or at least allowing private businesses to sell liquor, like they're allowed to in most of the civilized world. In California you can buy whiskey at Trader Joe's, and -- while California is falling apart at the seams -- it's hard to believe it has much to do with grocery-store booze. Here in Washington, Costco members seem to be eternally salivating at the prospect of Costco-sized 10-gallon jugs of vodka, while the rest of us just dream of having our own BevMo!

However, these proposals always seem to fall prey to the 21st-century version of Bootleggers and Baptists, which I'll call "Unions and Unions."

Here, the Unions play the role of the Baptists, making the case that our current system promotes virtue and temperance:

We have been opposed to this kind of proposal for years and remain opposed to it and feel the emerging coalition of people opposed to it shows how bad the idea is,” said Tom Geiger, communications director for UFCW 21. “We will actively work with health and safety advocates and others to make sure that the public is made fully aware of the dangers to the public safety posed by making liquor available in neighborhood grocery and convenience stores.”

Meanwhile, the Unions play the role of the Bootleggers, not wanting to give up their lucrative monopoly:

Task forces have repeatedly determined that private stores would not create more revenue for the state in the short or long term. What it would accomplish is the elimination more than 1,000 family-wage jobs. These experienced, safety-oriented state employees have the best compliance rate in the nation for preventing liquor sales to minors.

In fact, the only ones worrying about what might be good for consumers seem to be the large grocers:

The Northwest Grocery Association, which represents major chains including QFC and Safeway, has joined one of its largest members — Costco Wholesale — in supporting a voter petition to put Washington state out of the liquor-store business.

Sure, they're acting purely out of their own self-interest, but at least for once it coincides with the common good.

However, lest this restore your faith in the power of markets, it's worth pointing that the small grocers remain opposed to this change. While they make all the right noises about "morals" and "temperance," they accidentally let slip their true motivation:

Small grocers oppose the measure, saying it would be difficult for them to compete against big chains offering low liquor prices. With other products, they can offer customers local or higher quality alternatives, but "a bottle of vodka is a bottle of vodka," said Jan Gee, president and chief executive of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent grocers.

In other words, "I can't provide that service as efficiently as my competitors, so we've got to keep it illegal!"

I'm no longer an academic, so I won't bother writing a paper about this revolutionary new "Unions and Unions and Small Grocers" paradigm, but maybe one of you will? Sarah?

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