The Two Sides of the Dear Beer Agenda

By now many of you, I hope, have already read Tim Heffernan’s provocative article from the November/December issue of the Monthly about the possible descent of the United States into a drunken condition similar to that of the United Kingdom or pre-Prohibition America, and how to prevent it from happening without denying access to John Barleycorn altogether.

In his post on Heffernan’s article this morning, Paul Glastris emphasized the “cheap beer” angle of vertical integration of the brewing industry. I immediately wondered if it wouldn’t make sense to leave the system alone and just tax the hell out of the final product, essentially capturing for the public treasury the “dear beer” harvest in higher prices that might otherwise go to private-sector middle-men.

But in an email exchange with Paul, he noted the other side of Heffernan’s argument: leaving the system as it is also leaves in place the current and ever-expanding easy availability of strong drink at all hours of the day and night that a more regulated market might restrict.

This is an argument worth considering. In much of the country, it’s now possible to buy beer, wine and liquor 24-7 in grocery and drug stores. And the ability of these retailers to hustle a kiss o’ the hops is prodigious. I can’t find a real link to this, but New Orleans’ now-defunct grocery pioneer Schweggman’s was famous for making its own house-brand beer (brewed by Dixie) available near the entrance of its stores, and implicitly encouraging shoppers to drink a few while “making groceries.” This was undoubtedly a shrewd way of stimulating demand for food and drink products, but not exactly designed to avoid problem drinking.

I still think resuscitating an economically inefficient way to sell alcoholic beverages isn’t necessarily the ideal path for dealing with the problem. But it’s true easy availability when one might have already had a few too many, combined with price, are both parts of the equation. And there ought to be a happy medium somewhere between state-owned monopolies on hooch and drive-thru daiquiri outlets.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.