THE DEREGULATION rage in Washington may abate with the new administration, but in New York it's on a bit of a binge: After merrily drinking in the effects of a court decision knocking out state price minimums for wines, consumers are cheering on the effects of open competition. Not only did many prices drop sharply throughout the state after the decision in September, but the wine wars may soon spread to harder items: Gov. Hugh Carey now wants the state legislature to deregulate liquor prices, too. It should -- and so should a lot of other jurisdictions around the country that are imposing artificial price floors on retail goods.
On some fronts in New York, the wine wars produced bottle-price drops of as much as 33 percent; and one 35-store cooperative organization announced a "Wine Riot!" that turned out be vigorous but nonviolent. Nevertheless, many of the state's smaller retailers are calling for new protection from Albany; since the court said a state may not delegate the setting of minimum prices to sellers, as New York had been doing, the low-volume stores now want a law that would set wine prices on the basis of cost from the wholesaler plus 34 percent.
But why should governments be in the business of price-fixing, of telling store owners how much they must charge at a minimum, no matter what? Just as the old, misnamed "fair trade" laws killed price competition on television sets and other home appliances, so do these pointless floors on wine and liquor prices.
The list of different pointless, inconsistent and often quaint liquor laws from place to place around the country would fill a book, of course, and self-respecting drinkers won't be holding their breath waiting for national uniformity. But by encouraging open retail competition wherever they can, consumers can diminish the chances of being soaked.