Opinion: Daily Journal

This, Upon Sober Reflection

RALEIGH – I’m not a drinker. Of alcohol, I mean. In fact, I don’t much like the consumption of alcohol as a social practice. Yet I find myself routinely defending drinkers from the encroachments of rapacious or paternalistic governments.

For example, I continue to be rather angry at state attempts to combat drunk driving that, while perhaps reflecting good intentions, pose a real danger to civil liberties and common sense. I also favor getting the state completing out of the business of alcoholic-beverage control, which results in higher prices and inferior service for the many North Carolinians who want to buy liquor. (Privatization would also generate some useful one-time government revenues as ABC stores are sold to private operators.)

So, here I am again, the teetotaler, on the ramparts with social drinkers and inebriates, defending their right not to be singled out and imposed upon by the state (plus, I’m providing a certain equilibrium for them up there). Two issues are at the fore. First, on Wednesday Gov. Mike Easley proposed his 2005-07 state budget. While general observations about the governor’s big-spending, big-taxing budget can be found elsewhere, I’d point out here that among its tax-hikes is a higher sales-tax levy on liquor. Taking that rate to 7 percent, the governor says, will produce $3.5 million in FY 2005-06 and $4.6 million when fully implemented in FY 2006-07.

The move is sold as a “streamlining” and “fairness” issue, since other products are taxed at the 7 percent rate. But this is poppycock. Alcoholic beverages in North Carolina are already far more expensive than comparable products because of excise taxes and because of the economic effects of the ABC cartel. Drinkers are overtaxed, not undertaxed.

The only piece of good news here is that Easley declined to support a higher excise tax on alcohol, a policy that may originate in the state legislature’s version of the state budget.

My second complaint about alcohol policy also involves a single-digit percentage. North Carolina is one of just five states to require that “beer” consist of not more than 6 percent alcohol by volume. In other, less-regulated states, reports a citizen-action group in North Carolina called PopTheCap.org, aficionados can purchase a variety of malt beverages with percentages above six percent. These offerings include Belgian Ale, Imperial Stout, Barleywine, Scottish Ale, German Bock, Imperial IPA, and English Strong Ale.

I’m not particularly interested in English Strong Ale, Welsh Really Strong Ale, or Pictish Unbelievably Brawny Ale with Extra Manly Extract. But I think that adult North Carolinians have every right to purchase and consume what they like of the stuff – and that state policymakers are foolishly inhibiting the development of related business enterprises.

So, to summarize, my recommendation is that North Carolina “pop the cap,” avoid new taxes on alcoholic beverages, reduce the ones we do have to the level of taxation on other retail sales, and get state government out of the liquor business.

Little of which will benefit me personally in any way – except to the extent that I value free enterprise, sound tax policy, and personal freedom for others. Which I do, soberly.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal Online.