It is difficult to understate just how politicized America’s alcoholic beverage markets are. And I say “markets” because the country does not have a single nationwide market. Rather, it has markets far too numerous to count. These markets are the product of various regulatory regimes across federal, state, county and municipal levels of government.

The federal government taxes alcoholic beverages, regulates their production and acts as gatekeeper for proposed new products. Each state has its own regulatory regime; counties and other sub-state governments also have their own sets of policies. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that neighborhood community advisory boards, whose decisions hold great sway with alcohol licensing authorities, put a bar out of business before it even opened.

To make matters even more confusing, alcohol sales regulations also vary based on the type of beverage (beer versus spirits versus wines); the type of seller (sole proprietor shop versus chain store); and the venue (e.g., tavern versus restaurant versus party boat). It is sufficiently baroque that a “field guide” to state liquor laws has been published, and law firms specialize in alcohol policy.

Some alcoholic beverage sales policies are sensible. Disallowing the retail sale of intoxicating beverages in the wee hours of the morning aims to decrease dangerous behavior by stopping already-intoxicated individuals from buying more alcohol and getting drunker still. Requiring anyone who makes alcoholic beverages to specify a beverage’s alcohol content is truth in labeling.

The sensible policies, sadly, are not the only ones. Myriad regulations bear no relationship to the public good, limit consumer choice and profit the politically well-connected at a cost to the public. Some examples include:

The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives states the lion’s share of discretion over their alcoholic beverage regimes. It does not, however, mandate the rampant anti-consumer statutes and regulations that are so common.

States can do better. Legislators should support consumer choice, private enterprise and free markets by clearing out anachronistic and protectionist alcohol regulations and statutes.

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