Liquor Licenses as Weapons
Several weeks ago in a post about adult establishments, an interesting discussion about liquor licenses began in the comment section. (And I say “began”, because they sort of got out of control.) Anyway, while going through the news today, multiple examples of liquor license issues struck me as a good opportunity for a blog post. I say all this as someone who basically likes our liquor laws in Missouri. By most measures (taxes, wine import restrictions, market quotas, time limits, etc.) our liquor laws are pretty reasonable compared to other states. There are exceptions to this, but because eliminating liquor laws entirely won’t happen, the next best option is having rational, limited laws that accomplish a few goals (preventing minors from drinking), while allowing adults easy access to a very popular item: alcohol.
But anytime you give the government power to license something, it invites the opportunity for abuse. In St. John, a suburb of St. Louis, a restaurant entrepreneur will have to wait a few more weeks to know whether he can sell alcohol at his restaurant, because one councilmember does not want him to have a liquor license. Now, this may not be that big of a deal, because it appears he will get the license at the next meeting, but it is still a delay in his business plans.
A worse abuse of power was also featured in a Post-Dispatch article yesterday: A liquor license inspector has been charged with bribery. He attempted to force a prospective bar owner to pay him off and give him a job in order for the owner to get the license. Thankfully, the bar owner was able to obtain the license anyway (evidence that it is not all that hard to get a liquor license here), but this is further evidence of the inevitable abuses that come from government control.
I pointed out a moment ago that it is not all that hard to get a liquor license here. Well, that’s not true if you live in the city of St. Louis’ 20th Ward, where the local alderman decided (several years ago) that he does not want any more bars or liquor stores. If you have to have a liquor license process (and we’ll realistically have one whether we like it or not), it needs to be a public, evenhanded process, not reliant on whether or not one elected official approves it.
There are abuses in Kansas City, too. The Pitch has a story on the liquor licenses being suspended in restaurants that have been caught allowing smoking. This is terrible, and most aptly demonstrates the title of this post. If you have a law banning smoking in public establishments, the punishment should be a fine, not the suspension of an unrelated item. At the bottom of the Pitch article, you see examples of suspending liquor licenses for acts that at least relate to alcohol (one of which is actually important enough to warrant some type of punishment).
I won’t get into the dispute over liquor licenses and violence at the clubs in downtown St. Louis. This post is long enough. One good thing about our liquor laws is Missouri is that we generally (with exceptions like the 20th Ward) don’t have numerical restrictions on total licenses in an area, which is usually the worst part of any licensing system. But any system can and will be abused. The most important change we need to liquor laws in Missouri is to eliminate the ability for one individual to block a potential license all on their own — be it an inspector or an elected official. Requiring that all applicants get a vote of the full legislative body could be a good start.