Note: This is the second of two pieces on the Republicans of my youth..
Part II: Encouraging Vice
The Republicans of my youth were not only men of fiscal rectitude, they were men of moral rectitude. I can’t say what they did in private. I’m sure some of them drank from time to time and some drank too much. They probably also gambled from time to time either on a trip to Las Vegas or at the local trotter track, or maybe with a local bookie. But in public they frowned on these vices. They believed that people had a right to make their own choices, but they believed that government had a responsibility to direct people away from behavior that could be dangerous to themselves or others.
And they certainly didn’t think the government should be encouraging drinking or gambling. When the lottery was proposed for New York in 1967, most of the Republicans in my home town disapproved of it. When new liquor stores or bars were proposed in our village, they would often say we had enough of them.
That was then. Today, Republicans in Harrisburg seem to think the only legitimate form of revenue for the state is a tax on vice that the state encourages. In the last ten years we have seen casino after casino be built in the state with about half of the take being turned over to the state. We have seen sales of beer and wine in many new venues. The state has been taking in new money here as well, mostly from the sale of licenses for these new outlets.
One can argue, apparently endlessly, about the peculiar institutions we have to sell alcohol in this state. Our view, is that given the huge contribution that the PLCB makes to the state budget, fully privatizing the system would be enormously costly in ways almost no one (except a supporter of privatization who honestly admits the costs) recognizes.
But one thing that we do know about making liquor and gambling more accessible to people is that it leads to more alcohol consumption and gambling; that the “tax” on that activity is highly regressive; and that about ten percent of those who consume liquor and gamble account for most of it – many of those people develop habits that are debilitating to themselves and harm their families.
Given those costs to those with low incomes and those who develop addictions, the reliance of the state not just on sin taxes, but on encouraging the sins that it taxes, is problematic. In particular, the proposal to put Video Gaming Terminals in bars and taverns and other locations all over the state is deeply troubling.
I recall thinking those old-fashioned Republicans were a little stiff back in the 1960s. And I certainly disagreed with them about recreational drugs like marijuana. But I’ve never forgotten how they opposed a a state lottery back then, but I have come to respect their concern about the state encouraging vices like alcohol and liquor consumption.
And, in this area, too, I wish we had more men like that in politics in Pennsylvania today.