There’s an interesting experiment in economics going on up here in Western Canada. The results so far are as clear as mud, but in science that’s usually a symptom that there’s new knowledge trying to squirm out. It’s all about buying booze.
By way of background, all of Canada except for Québec has traditionally had a disapproving, Puritan sort of attitude toward liquor. Along with bizarre licensing rules for bars, one symptom of this is that alcoholic beverages are with a few exceptions only on sale in government-owned stores. (Weirdly, in Ontario, for many years there have been different stores for beer and for everything else.) Back when I started drinking these were grim places indeed; fluorescent-lighted caves with no bottles visible, just placards describing the wares and little slips of paper on which you wrote your order, which was fetched from out back by gnome-like civil servants.
Anyhow, a few years back in Alberta, the province one over from here which always has a right-wing government, the right-wing government of the day decided this government liquor store idea was silly, which you don’t have to be that right-wing to find plausible. So they privatized; you still can’t buy booze in the grocery stores, but pretty well anyone can open a store selling it.
Here in BC, at around the same time, presumably feeling threatened by the chill wind of threatened privatization, our government liquor stores decided to try to pull up their socks and get customer-oriented: more locations, longer opening hours, a bit more fun. By and large, they’ve done a pretty good job. Most of them look decent and have a pretty good selection, with reasonably intelligent and helpful staff, and prices that are not too bad on a world scale if you subtract the huge tax slice. One of the interesting side-effects is that even in remote backwoods outposts, if there’s a liquor store, you have a chance of picking up a decent Italian wine or Irish whiskey, which is not true of small towns in most of the rest of the world.
Anyhow, the Alberta experiment’s results have been decidedly mixed. Statistically, the prices don’t seem to be any lower, the government revenue is down quite a bit, and the people working there are making less. I visit Alberta quite a bit, and my personal experience is that while you can find perfectly decent liquor retail establishments, there are quite a few really second-rate establishments featuring miserable selection in a low-rent environment. Which, come to think of it, is to say that liquor has been made about like the rest of the retail spectrum.
Now, basic economics would suggest that unleasing the power of the market ought to really deliver in terms of quality, selection, and the bottom line. This is a debate that’s going on in some form all over the world. California famously botched the deregulation of electricity, but some other US states have done not-too-badly with only subtly-differing approaches.
There are two bottom lines. First, there’s not much popular support here in BC for doing an Alberta and charging into privatized booze. Secondly, the truth is hard to come by, and it’s not simple, but we already knew that.