Should retirement homes have liquor licenses? The Montana Tavern Association (surprise, surprise) says nay. 

Former Missoula city councilman Adam Hertz has gone to Helena to represent our district in the statehouse, but he knows the importance of old friends. He made a lot of them last week by introducing HB 430, a bill to allow certain retirement homes to apply for liquor licenses. Hertz's proposal would let "continuing care retirement communities"—homes with central dining rooms that operate seven days a week—serve drinks.

This is great news for anyone who got 86'ed from Red's after the Grizzlies won the conference championship against the Nevada Pinkertons in 1922. It's also good for residents of retirement communities whose impaired mobility keeps them from traveling to liquor stores or bars, but who would still like to impair their mobility a little further. Taking the long view, it is also probably good for anyone who plans to live. Sooner or later, if we drive carefully, we will all wish retirement homes served booze.

And yet Rep. Hertz's bill has managed to attract opponents. Speaking to Freddy Monares of the UM Legislative News Service, lobbyist John Iverson worried the plan might jeopardize older Montanans' health. "There is a very good chance that a lot of these people are on pharmacologicals that are going to be negatively impacted by alcohol," he warned.

Iverson works for the Montana Tavern Association, so he has to reach for these kinds of arguments. Still, he stretches considerably here. It's true that a lot of senior citizens take medicines that don't mix with alcohol, but so do a lot of people under retirement age. We generally trust them to obey their doctors' instructions. It seems unfair to apply a higher standard to older drinkers—unnecessary, even, since they have proven their knack for not killing themselves.

But we should forgive Iverson for staking out this tenuous position, since his employer may be the most fearsome power in Montana politics. Perhaps the National Guard could defeat the Tavern Association, but it would have to put down a mutiny first. The tireless lobbying of the Tavern Association is why brewery taprooms close at 8. Those drink tickets are its handiwork, and by its vigilance Montana upholds its peculiar system of state-licensed liquor stores. It is an industry group unwaveringly and somewhat counterintuitively devoted to making it hard for people to sell alcohol.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

People who aren't already selling alcohol, at least. The members of the Montana Tavern Association own liquor licenses already. Any new license necessarily diminishes the value of its investment. The iron law of economics is that everybody wants to get drunk all the time. If you own one of two liquor licenses in town, you're a millionaire. If you own one of a thousand, you're a bartender. Also the town is probably on fire, but that's beside the point.

The point is that the MTA is not a tavern business association but a tavern owners association. Although it is an industry group, the goal of its lobbying is not to expand the industry. It's to keep its share as profitable as possible. This phenomenon, by which established concerns use licensure and regulation to advance their own interests, is called regulatory capture.

Regulatory capture is a boring concept, but I encourage the reader to remember how much fun we had joking about old people earlier, because it's important. It's why Montana has developed a byzantine system of laws to govern microbreweries, and it's why poor Mr. Iverson has to travel to Helena to deny senior citizens a nightly belt of scotch. Because the liquor license system creates a barrier to entry for anyone who would compete with its bars, the Tavern Association mans that rampart consistently—even when that requires its members to act like what the economist George Stigler called "dicks."

There is no easy solution to regulatory capture. You can't just let people sell liquor without a license, or the only industries that survive will be liquor sales and auto repair. The solution to regulatory capture is often individual conscience: Lawmakers need to resist the entreaties—and money—of lobbyists, and executives need to appoint stewards of the public trust rather than servants of industry.

That's easier said than done. I applaud Rep. Hertz, though, for taking a step in the right direction. Hopefully, his colleagues in the legislature will follow him. Letting people get loaded in their retirement homes won't hurt the tavern owners too badly. It will probably be good for them, insofar as it will imply some hypothetical limit on the vast power of their association. And it will make life better for old people, who have put up with our nonsense long enough.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and the Pinkertons' controversial use of the forward pass at combatblog.net.

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