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It’s Time To Privatize Virginia’s State-Run Liquor Trade


Last year, while walking out of a grocery store in Charlottesville, Virginia, college student Elizabeth Daly was set upon by agents of Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Daly, you see, had purchased a package of sparking water, which the ABC agents had mistaken for alcohol; the agents then variously jumped on the hood of her car, drew a gun on her, and demanded she comply with their requests.

Hey, it happens to everyone—you see a girl with a nonalcoholic beverage, you assume she’s breaking the law, and you subsequently insist that she submit to your authority. Who among us, in our more exuberant moments, has not done such a wacky thing? Daly had no knowledge what was happening, of course—all the agents were plainclothes and the parking lot was dark—and so she and her friends fled the scene, resulting in her being charged with three felonies and spending a night in jail.

The charges were subsequently dropped, but Miss Daly, presumably feeling the residual sting of a state apparatus gone absolutely wild, has elected to sue the Department and the state of Virginia for $40 million. For my part, I am impressed at the young woman’s composure; were I to have suffered such indignities at the hands of a lawless bunch of inept government officials, I would have demanded the closure of the Department of Alcoholic Beverages Control, the proscription of the offending agents from any further government position statewide, and a public apology from every single member of the Virginia General Assembly for allowing Virginia’s ABC to exist in the first place. That would be a start.

Perhaps I overreact (though one of the agents allegedly tried to break Miss Daly’s car window with a flashlight while she was fleeing, so maybe I’m in good company). In any event, the fracas does raise some interesting questions, namely why the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control exists at all, and why a crack team of its deputized idiots was mingling around in a small-town parking lot hoping to nail some college undergrads for possibly purchasing alcohol. Less concerning is Miss Daly’s unfortunate brush with an aggressive, incompetent bureaucracy (though I do send my sympathies), and more concerning is why this should have ever come to pass in the first place.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is not, to put it lightly, the mark of a night watchman state; moreover, the Department is not even indicative of a state that has a very good grasp on its extant big government principles

I do not mean to speak poorly of my home state except to say that Miss Daly’s debacle illustrates the length to which Virginia has succumbed to the folly of government overreach. That overreach is self-evident when one is on the receiving end of an ABC agent’s dimwitted parking lot crackdown, but it is subtly evident in the existence of the agents themselves. There are a great many things upon which the Virginia government may elect to spend the tax dollars it collects, and it is mystifying as to why it would allocate a single penny towards controlling and regulating any kind of beverage at all. Is there not a more noble and productive endeavor in which the government may invest? Is there something that may present a greater return to the citizens of the Commonwealth to which the legislature might allocate funds?

One can think of any number of things, of course, but the pertinent facet of Virginia’s ABC is to be found less in the first two initials and more in the third: “control.” This is, after all, the agency that purchased a near-million-dollar “field support vehicle” with almost twenty computer work stations and a satellite connection to communicate with “remote areas of the state;” all of this, it is said, to act as a “centralized command post” at events the ABC feels the need to police. (Instead of through taxpayer dollars, the monstrous vehicle was paid for by civil forfeiture dollars—a fact that is supposed to make us feel better, somehow).

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is not, to put it lightly, the mark of a night watchman state; moreover, the Department is not even indicative of a state that has a very good grasp on its extant big government principles: as Miss Daly sadly found out, when the state is given an inch of power, it usually takes a mile of the stuff, and then keeps taking—all the way from an innocuous post-Prohibition bureau to the quasi-paramilitary crackdown of one woman’s sparkling water purchase. The ABC’s raid in a Charlottesville parking lot was not a bug, but the inevitable feature of giving too much power to the state: the swelled head and the unquenchable ego of a government agent with too much power will eventually only be satisfied by exercising that power, even if it’s on a group of co-eds who happen to like carbonated water.

Every so often, the same dreary debate in Virginia arises as to whether or not we should abolish the ABC and privatize the entire liquor trade. The usual chorus of howls arise: it is fiscally unsound, it will increase drunk driving rates, it will increase underage alcohol consumptions. All very interesting sociological and economic questions, of course (even if it’s hardly so simple); nevertheless, proponents of maintaining or expanding state power in any sphere at all should be aware of what happens when too much authority is vested in one single institution. The self-esteem of the bureaucrats inevitably grows, as does their belief in the infallibility of their state-sanctioned functions, and eventually they’re throwing down on a young woman in a parking lot for the crime of purchasing something she had every right to purchase. For suffering such indignities at the hands of a group of out-of-control morons, Miss Daly deserves every penny of that forty million. For even permitting such a thing to take place, and for having no reason to exist at all in the first place, Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control deserves to be permanently shuttered.

Daniel Payne blogs at Trial of the Century. You can follow him on Twitter.