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The Arkansas Two-Step

Posted: June 25, 2014 at 5 a.m.

Consider the four keys to economic success in Arkansas.

One is entrepreneurial spirit and hard work. Another is to be born to it. Another is to marry it.

The last, and our topic today, is to cash in on the state’s propensities for hypocrisy and anti-competitiveness.

Take the Razorbacks, just for starters and grins.

They profess to be possessed of the brave spirit of intercollegiate athletic competition. But their historic success—to be distinguished from their recent success, which has not occurred—is based in large measure on an actual aversion to that spirit.

It’s based on anti-competitive fear.

The Razorbacks steadfastly decline to engage in competition with other teams in their intrastate market.

Similar states like Kansas, Oklahoma, even Mississippi, especially Mississippi—they don’t establish in-state collegiate athletic monopolies as we do. Their teams line up against each other in free-market sports activity.

Sometimes they beat our monopoly football team with two or more of their in-state competitors. Last year two Mississippi teams beat our monopoly. The year before, two Louisiana teams beat our monopoly.

We’re simply anti-free market here in what we call the Land of Monopoly … I mean, Opportunity. We prefer to insulate our favored institutions from the threat of dissipation from competition.

I speak of gambling and liquor, of course.

As a state, we deem gambling wrong and self-destructive. So we dare not let people compete for riches in this area of vice. Instead we insist that the profit of sin flow only to a protected two.

We have a horse track called Oaklawn and a dog track called Southland.

When abutting jurisdictions expand their gambling options, we respond by doubling down on our protectionism. We let Oaklawn and Southland operate as casinos without actually being called casinos—for casinos, you see, would be wrong.

You may push the slot-machine button twice in our non-casinos. The second push is the player’s option if the first push didn’t win anything. That makes the device a matter of personal decision, thus a matter of skill, not a gamble, thus not wrong. Don’t you see?

Now to selling booze …

More than half the counties of Arkansas are called “dry,” meaning they are stuck in the long-abandoned national Prohibition era of the 1920s—when, as you know, no one ever had a drink of alcohol.

Arkansas is the last state in the country to have most of its counties dry. It’s very odd—not to mention futile—to create supposed teetotal islands. Some of the most raging drunks I ever heard of lived in presumably dry counties.

But not all of our state’s dry areas are really dry. If they get big enough for commercial exploitation—like Jonesboro, Conway and Benton—then they may have restaurants serving alcoholic beverages so long as those restaurants are arbitrarily restricted and called something other than restaurants. Private clubs, for example.

And our state’s package liquor stores operate on a strict licensing basis—also known as protectionism—that holds down competition.

In that regard, nothing benefits more from our hypocritical and anti-competitive spirit than a liquor store in a wet county located near the line separating it from a dry county. The prevailing hypocrisy of the dry county supplies a captive consumer base for the anti-competitive vendor down the road in the wet county.

And it’s better for people in dry counties to drive to get their booze, you see. Especially college kids.

If we require higher-education matriculants to take to the highways for alcohol, then they will be less likely ever to befoul their lips with fermented drink. Don’t you see?

Hypocrisy. Anti-competitiveness. It’s the Arkansas Two-Step.

That brings me to the following: Two petition drives are under way to qualify issues for the November ballot to make Arkansas less hypocritical and more of an actual market economy.

One, underwritten largely by Wal-Mart, would make “wet” the bustling communities of Saline, Faulkner and Craighead counties. That would let a retailer such as Wal-Mart—and assorted others—stock beer and wine in those places.

The other issue? It’s merely epic. Little Rock lawyer David Couch and others are leading petition efforts for a ballot issue to make the whole state of Arkansas as wet legally as it is practically.

I’m for it, mainly for compassionate reasons.

When the day comes when the Razorbacks get beat by Arkansas State, their fans are going to need a drink. There will be no good reason to limit arbitrarily their consumer choices.

And there will be no good reason to limit arbitrarily the commercial opportunities of the venture capitalists who might seek to provide that relief.

John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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