Wielding everything but tambourines and axes, a parade of witnesses last week warned the state Senate Law and Justice Committee that private-sector sales of alcoholic beverages will lead the commonwealth to perdition, even as most of them urged the state government to keep on selling the dangerous stuff to citizens.

The committee conducted a hearing on the House-passed bill that gradually would convert the state wine and spirits retail and wholesale monopoly into a free-market system, with the state government licensing and regulating the industry and enforcing relevant laws.

According to many witnesses, allowing private-sector merchants rather than government clerks to sell wine and spirts will lead to increases in alcoholism, divorce, poverty, unemployment, crime, out-of-wedlock births, car crashes, teen drinking, teen pregnancy and mental illness.

That scenario holds that Pennsylvania, which as the most heavily controlled system, should be an island of sobriety and virtue in a national sea of alcohol-induced chaos. Yet it's far from that.

To be sure, alcohol is powerful stuff. It contributes to all of the ills, in every state, that the various witnesses described. But it is a stretch to attach those problems to the point of sale rather than to the host of societal factors that determine consumption and abuse. And the product's dangerous nature raises further questions about the state government selling it.

Even with its controlled system, Pennsylvania is around the middle of the statistical pack for adverse consequences of alcohol consumption, including factors such as arrests, drunken driving, underage consumption and so on.

Many witnesses focused on the potential impact of privatization on underage drinking. Yet most underage drinkers choose beer, followed by hard cider or sweet malt-based drinks, rather than wine or spirits. If the state's involvement in booze sales really were a matter of public safety, the commonwealth would have to be the only vendor of beer.

Privatization opponents contend that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on alcohol is a warning against conversion. But the CDC also has reported that Pennsylvania, under state control, has a higher rate of alcohol-attributable deaths than five of six surrounding states, while Mothers Against Drunk Driving rates the state 35th in DUI safety, worse than all surrounding states but Delaware.

The privatization concept is sound. The Senate should take the House bill, improve it and pass a better bill of its own.