Pennsylvania On My Mind … Or Not

A funny thing happened on the way to West Chester, PA.

It doesn’t have the same ring as heading to the Forum, but it’ll do for an opening line. And it’s true.

During the week of the New Year holiday, my family and I headed up I-95 to gather with family and celebrate the arrival of 2015. That part, as expected, was fun. But unexpected, and not so much fun, was a series of unfortunate events that reminded me of how far we still have to go before economic liberty flourishes again.

First, there was I-95 itself. I have spent countless hours driving to and from and between and around Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. I know traffic and I know congestion more than I would like. I know about being caught in a stick shift car, on the New Jersey turnpike, in the middle of a freak snowstorm, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We never made it out of second gear. The nearly 10 hours to drive back to D.C. were literally painful.

Things are better these days along that heavily traveled thoroughfare, all because of markets and creativity. EZ Pass allows quicker routes and travel on express lanes. The HOT lanes north of Baltimore’s I-95 tunnels give one the choice of paying an extra buck to drive 10 miles over the limit without fear of a speeding ticket. And if you don’t feel like paying, you don’t have to. It all depends on how you value your time vs. your money.

The fact that so many people have chosen to take advantage of these transportation options demonstrates their value. After all, their very funding depends on it. And for people who opt in, the drive is much better. Unfortunately, too many states refuse to entertain innovation in transportation. And we wonder why we have problems. And taking Amtrak? You absolutely don’t want to go there.

So yes, the drive was better this time, but it could be much, much better still.

Eventually we made it. But after arriving, we discovered my sister-in-law’s champagne stock was running low—on New Year’s Eve. As the token family libertarian, I (stereotypically) provide the booze. It is a role I fulfill joyfully. But I live in Virginia, and I detest the Old Dominion’s monopoly on liquor sales. In fact, I will drive 10 miles to buy liquor from a private store in D.C. or Maryland rather than walk into a Virginia ABC store. But, I thought, I’m not in Virginia, so what’s there to worry about? Plenty, it turns out.

Pennsylvania liquor establishments, I confess, make Virginia’s look lavish by comparison. Want beer? You have to go to a specific store. Want spirits? Go to a different, specially designated store. Want a decent selection? Better drink water. For Keystone State residents, buying their favorite tipple means wading through a morass of price controls, distribution controls, cheap brands, and high prices worse than I’d imagined. And for what? More government and state-enforced morality. Good times.

So, I bucked up, and through gritted teeth paid up for the celebratory libations we needed. All will be well now, I thought.

Well, not quite.

We took a nice walk at a nearby park. It was a lovely spot, typical Southeastern Pennsylvania Andrew Wyeth-like dales and valleys and old stone-built structures. I found it all quite charming—until my brother-in-law told me how local homeowners had banded together to lobby the township to purchase the property to prevent a large company from constructing its new headquarters there. Then they turned part of the township-owned property into exclusive golf club with $100,000 entry dues with membership restricted to local neighbors—even as the township raised property taxes on everyone.

This is what we call cronyism. It is also arrogance—wealthy homeowners using political power to protect their vistas, keep out unwanted guests, deny significant job creation for many, and have their leisure activities subsidized, all on the taxpayer dime. It’s a textbook example of the lesson of public choice economics of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. It happens every day. And it is wrong on many levels.

I checked the GPS as we were leaving to head home. Heading south, I-95 was flowing smoothly through the Wilmington toll plaza where I’ve often experienced breathing in tailpipe fumes. Check. I was looking forward to sampling some whisky I had previously purchased online without paying sales tax or shipping costs. Another check.

Then I realized I needed gas, so I stopped to fill up just before crossing the border into Delaware. Bad move. Pennsylvania wasn’t done with me yet. That’s when I realized the state’s 10-cent gas tax increase went into effect that day.

Of course it did. No discount double check for me. Oh well, maybe next time.