Smile Politely

Liquor and Meritocracy

The hilarious Municipal Governance story of the month, as usual, is also the alarming Municipal Governance story of the month. Usually the humor is dark, because the governance is ridiculous. And that’s why it’s so serious.

This week, Champaign’s mayor and Liquor Commissioner Jerry Schweighart discovered that Fat Sandwich Co. delivers alcohol and cigarettes, as well as fat sandwiches.

The horror.

Fat Sandwich is far from unique, in this sense. I remember getting a six-pack from Trito’s, along with my grinder, 20 years ago. (Yes, if you do the math, it doesn’t quite work.)

“The city has actually had informal rules for delivery of alcohol requiring a $75 minimum purchase for about 15 years, but they were never formally adopted as part of the liquor ordinance, said commission member Jack Troxell Jr., owner of the Piccadilly Beverage Shops.”

This paragraph of the News-Gazette’s story should send a cold chill down your spine. For what, exactly, is an “informal rule?” I’ll tell you. Viewed with an air for the romantic, it’s a gentleman’s agreement. Viewed with an air of cynicism, it’s a monopoly. This is like the time the City of Champaign sold One Main Development a prime downtown location for its flagship building, without so much as a competitive bidding.

Piccadilly Beverage Shops has set the price, and has been delivering alcohol for as long as I can remember. And, yes, the owner is a liquor commissioner. Now that the commission discovers (egad!) competition in the marketplace, the commission is going to impose some rules. That means YOU, Fat Sandwich Company.

Piccadilly would charge even more were it not for the competition from CVS, Meijer, Hometown Pantry, Schnuck’s, Discount Den, County Market, Friar Tuck, Corkscrew . . . am I missing anybody? There aren’t many choices, but we should be thankful there are some.

In many states, you don’t get a choice. You buy your liquor at the state run store. Invariably, that means higher prices and fewer choices. Good luck trying to buy a single malt in Quebec.

What’s the big deal? Is this about safety? Is this about money?

The Fat Sandwich guys may be delivering to underage kids, but the story makes it clear: they claim to card upon delivery (to verify the credit card charge). But even if Fat Sandwich were not diligent about carding, could not the city set up yet another sting operation to spit in the ocean of underage drinking?

If they did set up such a sting operation, would that make anyone safer?

If 19 year-olds are determined to intoxify themselves, no army will stop them. But we might all feel happier if they do it at home, and not drive somewhere. We might, the next morning, appreciate that they’ll be in familiar confines when they toss their cookies. We know they’ll be safer if they don’t pass out in some stranger’s apartment.

Liquor laws are a relic of the failed temperance movement. They remain among the very few government-sponsored restrictions on free trade. You pay more for a bottle of wine in Illinois than you would in states where the ăbercorrupt cartel of bribe offerors and state reps (yes, I am talking specifically about members of the Illinois General Assembly) are not in bed together — possibly enjoying a glass of wine, after making love to one another, while just plain fucking the consumer.

Back when these laws were conceived, mankind went to work in the morning. Rural Electrification promised America’s yokels a future of nighttime lighting. Womenfolk were not allowed to vote. And someone decided that we need a middle-man between booze producers and booze retailers.

Distribution companies are the law in Illinois. You can’t buy booze from the booze makers. Meijer can’t buy booze from the booze maker. There must be, by law, a middle-man. That’s why everything costs so much.

There’s no benefit to public health or “morals.” Just you look at a handsomely-titted plastic banner hanging from your neighborhood shithole, advertising a major brew, and tell me that distribution companies have improved the “morals” of Illinois.

But at least we have some competition here. It’s truly hilarious to see how much a bottle of wine costs in Quebec. And they’re French! They should know better. But the best super-inexpensive bottle of wine in Urbana — Oak Creek for $2.70 @ CVS when you buy 6 — costs $11 in Montreal. (Yes, you also get free health care thrown in, but that’s not the point.)

A better system would eliminate the alcohol distribution racket. We can enforce drunk driving laws without them. We can enforce vagrancy laws without them. We can enforce public-urination laws without them. They are, to us, merely a tax.

A better system would eliminate rigid age laws. We could give drinking licenses to high school graduates who pass a U.S Constitution exam, a language proficiency test, and possibly some variety of civics and history survey. Incentives work much better than penalties.

We could give a drinking license to anyone who enlists. In some towns, an armed forces ID gets you served anyhow, and why not? If you’re willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for your country, the least it can do is sell you a beer.

An unrelated, personal addendum:

Carmelita Thomas was my third and fourth grade teacher. She was an excellent teacher. One of the two best in my pre-college experience.

I, as an adult, had the pleasure of telling her what a wonderful benefit she was to me as a child. Her competent stewardship regularly informs my thoughts and decisions. She would certainly not be so obstreperous as I, but she would make sure that whatever my opinion, I formed it well, and communicated it as clearly as possible.

For as long as I live, I owe some part of what I am to her.

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