Give us liberty!
It occurred in these parts 220 years ago: Western Pennsylvania farmers and citizens protested the government’s attempt to tax their production of whiskey. The protests grew violent. In July 1794, an incensed band of more than 400 whiskey rebels torched the home of John Neville, the regional tax collector and renowned Revolutionary War veteran, and a big name to Pittsburghers to this day.
In response, President George Washington, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, dispatched a force of 13,000 men.
The insurrection became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. These Pennsylvania patriots didn’t want the government taxing their alcohol. I wonder how they would feel about their government now. Today in Pennsylvania, the government not only taxes alcohol but controls its sale.
That’s the bizarre situation in this bizarre state, which finds itself almost alone among the nation’s 50 states. With the exception of Utah, only in Pennsylvania are citizens not free to purchase “spirits” in private stores. Utah’s primary motivation is Mormonism. Pennsylvania’s primary motivation is unionism — or, more specifically, public-sector unionism. The utter incomprehensibility of this incomprehensible situation becomes barely comprehensible only once one understands the vagaries of government unions. There is, as a matter of plain fact, no other reason for this insanity. In Pennsylvania, government controls alcohol because government unions control government.
It’s a kind of political madness that one cannot walk into any supermarket and purchase a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. I’ve been in grocery stores all over the country, coast to coast, and encountered entire aisles devoted strictly to red wine. The shelves are stocked with endless varieties at great prices. I’ve spent a lot of time in California. Every time I go to the wine aisle in a grocery store there, I’m faced with so many bargain prices that I can always find an excellent and totally new wine for around $6 or $7. It’s such a deal that I honestly feel guilty after my purchase, like I’m ripping off the other wine producers.
But the real rip-off is Pennsylvania. We get extremely limited options at excessive prices, a textbook example of government-generated monopoly with no competition. We are left with the mere “option” of these alien things we call “state stores,” a term that baffles out-of-state visitors.
This absurdity should have ended decades ago, but plagues us still. Will these “stores” (the term really doesn’t apply) ever be privatized?
I raise this issue now because it’s especially precarious. I once thought that liquor privatization was possible via Gov. Ed Rendell, even though he was a Democrat, the party of the government unions. Believe it or not, when he was mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell actually privatized a bunch of services. He was a national leader and innovator in that regard. It was one of the best things he did in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, once he became governor, he reverted to Democrat form. He was just as beholden to the government unions as every Democrat who kneels before the Teamsters’ Temple.
Alas, with the election of Tom Corbett and the Republican Legislature, I finally thought liquor privatization was a reality. But now, here we are, with Corbett four years into what might be a one-term governorship, and the prospects are dim. He trails Tom Wolf, a revenue-hungry class-warfare specialist, by double digits in the polls. If Wolf prevails in November, we might not sniff liquor privatization for a long, long time.
The time is now. Or is even now too late?
This statewide nightmare continues. Would someone please liberate our liquor? Can the State of Independence have independent alcohol? The boys from the Whiskey Rebellion would be shocked that we tolerate this.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.”