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Politics no image

Published on March 26th, 2012 | by Glenn Coleman-Cooke
Image © [caption id="attachment_9360" align="alignleft" width="252" caption="Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication- Lord Byron"][/caption] While there have been several events of interest this week in the political sphere, from the importance of the budget to the cringe-inducing hilarity of the poison dwarfs ghastly address to the Queen, one of the most crucial, in terms of fundamental questions of liberty and the role of the state, has been the Idea of minimum alcohol pricing. The Prime minister has announced that from later this year, there will be a minimum price of 40p per unit for alcohol sold in England and Wales. At first glance this does not seem particularly worrying, even to those reckless souls such as myself who dare to drink more than her majesty’s government deems appropriate. As these minimum prices mean a 12% bottle of wine cannot be sold for less than £3.60, and a 40% bottle of spirits must go for at least £11.20, that is to say less than most cost anyway, it seems that only those who enjoy beverages with the taste and consistency of industrial waste will be affected. This rather misses the point however, as once the principle that this is a reasonable thing for a government to do has been established, the issue of what the minimum price actually is becomes a minor technicality, one that is pretty much certain to increase faster than inflation. When considering an issue such as this ,one must of course weigh principal and pragmatism against each other, but it seems that this proposal is found wanting on both fronts. One of the  most commonly used arguments by those who support the pernicious idea that it is the role of the government to try to “improve” us against our will is that of health, with various estimates of the cost to the NHS of drinking being bandied about, the most common being around three billion pounds a year . This is a very old argument, but also a very poor one. It may have occurred to eagle eyed news viewers that while we are often presented with this £3bn figure, it is rarely mentioned that the amount of duty collected by the exchequer on alcoholic drinks in 2009 was £9bn. The simple fact that the exchequers income through taxation of alcohol is roughly three times the cost of dealing with all drink related health problems puts the practical side of this argument to bed. As for the principal, it has long been an accepted tenant of liberal democracy that it is not within the remit of the government of the day to bully or force the people it serves into living how it sees fit, a tenant that many governments would unsurprisingly like to do away with. This point is most elegantly summarised by the great  John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty, when he says “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil if he do otherwise.” The other main pillar of the argument for these measures is that of law and order, namely that they will somehow reduce violent and uncivilised behaviour in town centres during weekends. However, this once again seems to spectacularly miss the point that individual character is the problem, not alcohol. As a student, I, and many others, would go into the town centre of an evening, get absolutely trollied, dance around a bit, then go home and collapse. At no point do I recall anyone vomiting in the street, fighting or having altercations with the police or ineed doing anything antisocial with the possible exception of singing. I mention this not in order to suggest that problems do not exist, but rather to point out that it is perfectly possible to get drunk without behaving unpleasantly, and to remind people that those horrid yobs one sees drunk on late night police TV programs were almost certainly horrid yobs when sober. Does the chancellor really imagine that this move is going to affect the behaviour of such people? They might be able to afford one less shot on their night out but it seems somehow unlikely that this will make all the difference. Why not instead address the people causing the trouble directly by hugely increasing fines for drunk and disorderly conduct (to be paid out of benefits in the case of the unemployed), or by simply bundle the unpleasant drunks away enmasse to overnight storage centres (and charge say £300 per night for accommodation)? To target the crime and yobbery of people who happen to be drunk by attacking all drinkers makes about as much sense as rounding up everyone in a tracksuit in order to prevent burglary (although this would almost certainly be more effective). As the nanny state lobby is unlikley to be swayed by simple logic however, my humble advice to all those who enjoy a drink is to be prepared, for if this measure comes in, it will most certainly be another step down the slippery slope towards the tyranny of “it’s for your own good”. I wonder how much a homebrew kit costs?.....

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Nanny strikes again

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication- Lord Byron

While there have been several events of interest this week in the political sphere, from the importance of the budget to the cringe-inducing hilarity of the poison dwarfs ghastly address to the Queen, one of the most crucial, in terms of fundamental questions of liberty and the role of the state, has been the Idea of minimum alcohol pricing.

The Prime minister has announced that from later this year, there will be a minimum price of 40p per unit for alcohol sold in England and Wales. At first glance this does not seem particularly worrying, even to those reckless souls such as myself who dare to drink more than her majesty’s government deems appropriate. As these minimum prices mean a 12% bottle of wine cannot be sold for less than £3.60, and a 40% bottle of spirits must go for at least £11.20, that is to say less than most cost anyway, it seems that only those who enjoy beverages with the taste and consistency of industrial waste will be affected. This rather misses the point however, as once the principle that this is a reasonable thing for a government to do has been established, the issue of what the minimum price actually is becomes a minor technicality, one that is pretty much certain to increase faster than inflation.

When considering an issue such as this ,one must of course weigh principal and pragmatism against each other, but it seems that this proposal is found wanting on both fronts. One of the  most commonly used arguments by those who support the pernicious idea that it is the role of the government to try to “improve” us against our will is that of health, with various estimates of the cost to the NHS of drinking being bandied about, the most common being around three billion pounds a year . This is a very old argument, but also a very poor one. It may have occurred to eagle eyed news viewers that while we are often presented with this £3bn figure, it is rarely mentioned that the amount of duty collected by the exchequer on alcoholic drinks in 2009 was £9bn. The simple fact that the exchequers income through taxation of alcohol is roughly three times the cost of dealing with all drink related health problems puts the practical side of this argument to bed.

As for the principal, it has long been an accepted tenant of liberal democracy that it is not within the remit of the government of the day to bully or force the people it serves into living how it sees fit, a tenant that many governments would unsurprisingly like to do away with. This point is most elegantly summarised by the great  John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty, when he says

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil if he do otherwise.”

The other main pillar of the argument for these measures is that of law and order, namely that they will somehow reduce violent and uncivilised behaviour in town centres during weekends. However, this once again seems to spectacularly miss the point that individual character is the problem, not alcohol. As a student, I, and many others, would go into the town centre of an evening, get absolutely trollied, dance around a bit, then go home and collapse. At no point do I recall anyone vomiting in the street, fighting or having altercations with the police or ineed doing anything antisocial with the possible exception of singing.

I mention this not in order to suggest that problems do not exist, but rather to point out that it is perfectly possible to get drunk without behaving unpleasantly, and to remind people that those horrid yobs one sees drunk on late night police TV programs were almost certainly horrid yobs when sober. Does the chancellor really imagine that this move is going to affect the behaviour of such people? They might be able to afford one less shot on their night out but it seems somehow unlikely that this will make all the difference. Why not instead address the people causing the trouble directly by hugely increasing fines for drunk and disorderly conduct (to be paid out of benefits in the case of the unemployed), or by simply bundle the unpleasant drunks away enmasse to overnight storage centres (and charge say £300 per night for accommodation)? To target the crime and yobbery of people who happen to be drunk by attacking all drinkers makes about as much sense as rounding up everyone in a tracksuit in order to prevent burglary (although this would almost certainly be more effective).

As the nanny state lobby is unlikley to be swayed by simple logic however, my humble advice to all those who enjoy a drink is to be prepared, for if this measure comes in, it will most certainly be another step down the slippery slope towards the tyranny of “it’s for your own good”. I wonder how much a homebrew kit costs?…..

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