Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Justifying the ways of government to man

"Ein' feste Burg ist unser Getränk"

As much as I love living in Canada, the prim and priggish nature of other Canadians is a constant source of annoyance to me. One of the trials of living in this country of wowsers is getting used to the puritanism surrounding the sale and consumption of alcohol. Most provinces(*) have a central agency which both monopolizes the retailing of booze and determines what will and will not be made available. I suppose the theory behind this is that private liquor stores, or even just the sale of beer and wine in corner shops and groceries, would lead to drunken riotousness and social breakdown on a grand scale; it's difficult to imagine what any other rationale could be, other than the desire to preserve jobs in the public sector.

The all-too-Canadian paternalism in this is very real, and can be taken to ridiculous extremes. I'm just old enough to remember a time when liquor stores in Ontario didn't allow you to peruse the shelves on your own; instead, you'd pick the brand you wanted out of a catalogue, write its serial number on a piece of paper, and hand that to a clerk who would fetch the item from a warehouse in the back. Presumably the sight of all the bottles at once would have incited the prospective customer into a frenzy. This has now thankfully been changed but, despite their having been made more user-friendly, liquor stores in Ontario remain thin on the ground. The city of Mississauga for example has eight locations serving a population of 700,000 people, making it very unlikely that the market is being adequately served -- especially when one takes into account the large numbers of immigrants who find they cannot import and sell their own favourite drinks from back home.

Here in Nova Scotia there is a much less diverse and/or adventurous customer base, so the selection is even narrower than in Ontario. Some major global brands are simply unavailable, or will suddenly appear only to be discontinued later on. In theory, you can make a request by phone for a certain brand to be picked up by the agency, but if you attempt to do so you may be asked to pay for enormous import costs -- this at least is what happened to me after I had the temerity to ask the NSLC (our provincial liquor commission) to stock a brand of German beer I found readily available at several private stores in the northeastern U.S.

And then, of course, there is the matter of prices. Since a monopoly has no competition, the NSLC uses something called a "social reference" to determine its prices -- "to discourage", in the provincial government's sanctimonious words, "the excessive consumption of alcohol." Of course this is merely the glib rationale for a tax grab, but even taken at their face value these words make no sense. A price increase merely punishes the moderate, lower- income drinker, while those who are more affluent (such as politicians themselves, or the brass of the NSLC) will hardly notice the increase. At the same time, no real alcoholic -- whatever his social status -- is going to be put off from committing slow suicide by a fifty-cent price hike.

You would never guess from listening to these words of the government that most people actually liked to drink -- to relax with a couple of beers after work or a bottle of wine over dinner -- rather than being driven to it by an addiction beyond their control; instead, you could only imagine that drinking is a highly unpleasant fact of life, and one only to be tolerated with the greatest reluctance and supervision. Such is the wisdom of the State.

Next time you are holding a glass, please raise a toast to privatization. Slàinte!

(* It has to be said that Quebec is at least a partial exception to this, for cultural and historical reasons of its own. Not only are the prices for beer, wine, cider, liqueurs, and aperitifs far more reasonable in la belle province, these items are also sold alongside food at corner and grocery stores (though the sale of spirits is still reserved to the government.) Quebec breweries such as Unibroue and micro-breweries such as Breughel in Kamouraska also produce world-class beers which, predictably, are unavailable for purchase in other provinces.)


Rajeev said...

Impressed! Franziskaner is by far my favourite beer. If gold could be drunk it would taste like that.

I well understand the monk on the label appreciating the beer with a satisfied grin.

...mmmm beer.

Neil said...

Franziskaner is actually the German brand I asked the NSLC to carry -- only to be told by some sniggering punk at the agency that I would have to order 3000 cases to make it worth their while.

P.S. If envy could kill, you'd be stone dead by now buddy!

Rajeev said...

I'll treat you next time you come over!