Tennessee recently passed a law limiting any company from owning more than two liquor-store licenses. Why? Well, current holders of liquor licenses don’t want out-of-state grocery chains to enter the market and, gasp, sell more brands of liquor at lower prices.

Would that this were an egregious exception, but such consumer-unfriendly policies are the norm. Consider some examples from around our great nation:

One could go on. Plainly, all these policies have nothing to do with public safety or well-being. Such protectionist measures are designed to enrich entrenched interests.

The 21st Amendment is the well-spring for all this bad regulation. It has imposed huge costs and hassles and consumers and fostered all sorts of corruption.

Done properly, the 1933 amendment should have struck down the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) and left it at that. But no. The amendment also decreed:

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

At first glance, this looks like federalism. It isn’t. This is an invitation to mischief that has allowed states to erect all sorts of rules that inhibit the commercial drinks trade.

This provision also is offensive to the Constitution on two counts. First, it runs directly contrary to the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3), which assigns the federal government –not states—the authority regulate commerce among the states. There’s a massive corpus of constitutional law that greatly curtails the authority of states to interfere in commerce. A state –say, Ohio – cannot protect its domestic manufacturers by forbidding out-of-state manufacturers from selling their gewgaws and widgets in Ohio.

Second, the Constitution is wholly silent on the specifics of trade, leaving the regulation of specific goods and services to Congress to decide on a case-by-case basis. Quick civics quiz: what two types of commercial trade does the Constitution explicitly limit? Guns and drugs? Nope. Illicit drugs and prostitution? No. The correct answer is: the slave trade and the alcohol trade. How’s that for a moral equivalence?

When the Supreme Court took up the matter of state policies inhibiting out-of-state alcohol shipments to consumers, it split five to four. The 2005 Granholm case curbed some of the most egregious state policies, but the justices could not wish away the 21st Amendment. The text is the text.

Ideally, we would wipe the 21st Amendment’s offending provision from Constitution. This would remove any ambiguity about the extent of the Commerce Clause. Amending any part of our national charter is a heavy lift, but that does not mean it is not worth doing.

The internet is making it tougher for states to maintain indefensible liquor traffic. Sites like InternetWines.com and others have ways to ship drinks licitly. Consumer expectations have risen, and states are going to have a hard time telling the public, “No you can’t have that beverage. Because.” Over time, more of these bad policies to will crumble, so long as voters keep telling state legislatures that we want better.

Featured Publications