It’s time to privatize the government liquor stores

The following op-ed, written by our president Connor Boyack, was published last week in the Salt Lake Tribune.

The recent audit by the state auditor into the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control continues to tell what all of us know: that government does a poor job of running a business.

Poor management, poor pay, and poor morale are all engrained as part of the DABC, even after several high-profile reboots. The idea that government can somehow fix the very problems that it has created stretches credulity to the breaking point.

And with a government monopoly, DABC isn’t responding to the market, where demand is clearly exceeding supply. More stores are needed to satisfy the demand, according to one recent study, yet cities don’t want them and DABC, a government entity, is only willing to build where they are welcomed with open arms by city leaders.

Getting government out of the booze business is a winning argument. A recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune found that 57 percent of Utah voters were in favor of privatizing the liquor industry, while only 34 percent wanted to maintain the status quo.

Republicans and Mormons are heavily split, but the argument to persuade them is a compelling one. (For the record, I’m a Republican and a Mormon.) It’s a simple point, really: those who abstain from alcohol—indeed, those who morally object to its recreational use—should not be compelled to be shareholders in a liquor business. As Utah taxpayers, we are all part-owners in the industry. That needs to stop.

Supporting privatization does not mean that one condones the use of alcohol; keeping firearms or matches or computers legal does not suggest that one supports using these items in harmful or destructive ways. So, too, with alcohol. Adults should have access to this legal product without government hurdles arbitrarily imposed in their path.

Utah politicians should not tell us what we can and cannot do with our lives. Just like we have both the nation’s highest volunteer and charitable giving rates, Utah also has the nation’s lowest DUI rate—not because of forced obedience by government, but because of our core values and our own exercise of liberty. 

DABC has rightly been the subject of much derision from its customers—long lines, limited selection, inefficiencies, and inadequate locations, among other problems, plague the monopolistic enterprise. Policy makers must realize that marginal tweaking at a monopoly won’t improve the industry or alleviate process issues. What the business needs is to respond to market pressures.

Private actors are not guaranteed a profit, much less a base of customers. If demand is shown for a certain product, or an additional store, then a business owner can quickly act to fulfill that demand. Utah’s conservatives know this intimately; free market economics is political scripture to them. And yet, many of them resist privatizing—this despite Utah’s Constitution explicitly stipulating that the state is required to have a free market.

Just as DABC does not respond to market signals because of their guaranteed customer pool, the Utah Legislature does not respond due to ideological attitudes of regulating alcohol, and, for some, the political pressures from the church with which they affiliate. In part because of these disincentives to act, audits, polls, and well-known problems with DABC have not led to substantive and needed reform.

Given these constraints, as well as the favorable poll numbers, it may be time to send this matter to Utah’s voters directly. 

Government does not belong in the alcohol business, and the results of its own audit prove it.