Cheap Spirits and the Spirit of Freedom

A couple of days ago a friend of mine here in Norway, where I live, posted a note on Facebook in which he sardonically noted: “Think what it’ll be like if it becomes possible for adult people to buy a bottle of red wine…at 5 PM on a Saturday or -- horrors! -- 7 PM on a weekday.”

Here’s the background. In Norway, all wine and spirits are sold in government-owned stores dedicated strictly to that purpose.  The stores -- which collectively are known by the cozy name vinmonopolet, or “the wine monopoly” -- are open from 10 to 6 on weekdays and 10 to 3 on Saturdays. They’re closed on Sundays and on all sorts of holidays. Around Christmas and Easter they’re closed for days at a stretch.

The number of stores is limited, determined not by market demand but, in good socialist fashion, by government fiat. In Oslo, a sprawling city with a population of over half a million, there are only 26 stores. And the prices -- thanks to taxes designed to discourage potential customers and punish those who do buy -- are the world’s highest. Norwegians go to Sweden to purchase cheaper intoxicants than they can get at home - and for the same reason Swedes go to Denmark, Danes to Germany, and Germans to Italy.

Norwegians gripe about all this, but their political establishment is in no rush to overturn the system. On alcohol policy, Norway’s major parties, whether on the Christian right, left, far-left, or so-far-left-they’d-give-Castro-the-bends, have traditionally been very comfy bedmates. They all love control, because they’re all sure they know what’s good for Norwegians a lot better than Norwegians do. For the Christian right, demon rum threatens family values; for the left, drinking distracts citizens from their duties to the socialist state.

The outlier here, as in pretty much everything else, is the Progress Party, which routinely introduces initiatives that its opponents warn will lead Norway down the path to (gasp!) “American conditions” -- otherwise known as increased individual liberty. My Facebook friend’s post was, in fact, a reaction to the Progress Party’s radical proposal that (double gasp!) opening hours for the vinmonopol be extended to 8 PM on weekdays and 6 on Saturdays.

I felt compelled to comment on my friend’s post. I’d just come back from Baton Rouge, I wrote, and at the Walmart near my hotel you could get a big bottle of vodka for all of 10 bucks. For my part, I’d bought an extra-large bottle of Smirnoff -- 1.75 liters -- at the Albertsons megastore across the street from Walmart. The tab: $19.99 plus tax, for a total of $21.79.

How much would that have cost at Vinmonopolet? Well, first of all you wouldn’t be able to get that big a bottle of Smirnoff, except maybe on special order. But you could acquire just under the same amount -- 1.70 liters -- by purchasing two bottles, a one-liter and a 70-centiliter, for a total of NOK 694.80, or $123.27. In short, more than five and a half times the price in Baton Rouge.

What’s more, the Walmart was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Out of curiosity, I scoured the place for information about the hours during which alcohol was sold. In Norway, beer is sold in grocery stores, but only until 8 PM -- at which time the beer shelves are carefully covered with a sheet, like a Muslim housewife.