The following article was published by Colorado Daily on January 26, 2009, under the title, “Free our beer: Stop telling grocers what they can and can’t sell.” It also appears on the Independence Institute’s web page as “A Good Beer Needs No Political Force.”
Game time is ten minutes from now. Tortilla chips, check. Salsa, check. Okay, where’s the real beer? If you’ve ever wanted to buy food and fine beer at the same store, tough luck. State law says that’s a crime.
Last year the Democrats pushed through the free-market reform of allowing liquor stores and their customers to conduct business on Sundays. Yet the Colorado liquor industry remains hampered by Prohibition-era controls. State law prohibits liquor stores from opening chains and selling food. It forbids grocery stores from selling anything but low-alcohol beer, and that’s the big fight this year.
In a January 11 article for the Rocky Mountain News, John Carlson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, argues that the grocery-store restrictions promote “the diverse array of beer styles for which Colorado is nationally known… because independent liquor stores offer [craft brewers] vital access to market.” However, truly “independent” liquor stores wouldn’t demand protectionism imposed by politicians and their army of bureaucrats.
The point of the free market is not to maximize choices in beer or any other item, but to protect liberty. If having the most beers available were the goal, the state could force all liquor stores to carry every single beer brewed throughout the world. State law could also force existing brewers to expand ten-fold the styles of beer they produce. Somehow, I doubt the people paying Carlson’s salary would appreciate such laws.
Free markets do offer consumers vast choices by protecting their right to exchange on mutually agreeable terms. People naturally seek a wide variety of goods and services. When politicians attempt to ensure “choice” by forcibly intervening in trade, they destroy people’s choice to buy and sell as they see fit.
Choice does not justify force. For example, we have fewer choices today in horse-drawn buggies, hand-sewn clothing, and pet rocks. If politicians tried to force us to buy more of those things, they would undermine our choice to shop for other goods.
Carlson implausibly claims that grocery store sales would restrict the diversity of beer. The rise of microbrews is due to consumer demand, not protectionism. Some grocery stores would stock a wide selection, expanding the ability of craft brewers to get their product to market. Many stores would continue to compete for the business of those who just can’t decide between that Smokejumper Porter and Mephistopheles’ Stout.
Stores properly compete on diversity of selection, price, and customer service. Some people just want an ice-cold Coors. Others want the global sampler pack. Some shop for convenience, others for rare beers sold by knowledgeable employees. Telling grocery stores they can sell only low-alcohol beer is a bit like telling Wal-Mart it can sell only Britney Spears in the music aisle. We don’t protect butcher shops by forcing grocery stores to sell only fatty hamburger.
By forcibly limiting the choices of shoppers who prefer a basic selection at lower prices, Colorado law forces some beer drinkers to subsidize those with more eccentric tastes.
Protectionism helps some businesses by harming their competitors. It violates the spirit of camaraderie, liberty, and free competition that craft brewers are supposed to represent. At game time, root for your team, and root also for the freedom to buy goods and services from anyone willing to sell them. And don’t forget the salsa.
Ari Armstrong is a guest writer for the Independence Institute and the editor of FreeColorado.com.