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What free market?

Published September 26, 2012 5:31 pm

Utah picks winners and losers
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When it comes to using the free market as the measure of all things, the hypocrisy of Utah's state government is astonishing.

While members of the Legislature and officials all the way up to Gov. Gary Herbert try to outdo one another in their worship of the free enterprise system — sometimes even using it as an excuse for short-changing the state's public schools — they steadfastly refuse to let the market decide how many bars and alcohol-serving restaurants Utah shall have.

The latest example of this ridiculous policy was played out Tuesday at a meeting of the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Seventeen applicants entered, seeking a club license. One business — the MacCool's Public House in Ogden — left with the golden ticket.

The rest walked away, empty-handed, perhaps to return in December, when one more such license is expected to be available.

This is absurd.

If we were to really allow the marketplace — rather than government action — to determine the "winners and losers" in any arena, it would be profoundly easier for any businessperson who has gone through the pains of writing a business plan, lining up the money, perhaps even leasing space and opening her doors, to get the required liquor licenses.

Any civilized society would put restrictions and conditions on the license, of course. Things such as hours of operation, minimum training for waiters, barmaids and other staff, and firm prohibitions — with firm penalties — for, say, serving under-age customers.

Other states have quotas for the number of liquor outlets based on the size of their population. But Utah's limits are so restrictive that they bear little resemblance to a market-driven system.

Utahns, as a species, are not big drinkers. Thus a true market-based system would still provide less demand for liquor-serving business than, say, almost anywhere. And the marketplace would adjust itself accordingly.

The excessive limits that Utah places on those licenses betrays a mistrust not only of the state's entrepreneurs, but also of its citizenry as a whole. It presumes that people who would otherwise consume responsibly, or not at all, are so easily swayed by the existence of more bars and liquor-serving restaurants, even the sight of beer and wine being poured in plain sight, that we will swoon before John Barleycorn.

Thus the reputation of Utah as a pro-business state must be taken with a large grain of salt. And no tequila.