Friday, 16 August 2013

It's the cheap beer talking

This is a post I wrote months ago, only to neglect to click 'Post'. Which is ironic, given the title.

It is a while since I have written anything. The topic which prompts me to break my silence - a minimum unit price for alcohol - does so because it is subject to so many misapprehensions and misappropriations of liberal doctrine (particularly the writings of JS Mill, Smith, Paine). I will throw a few brief observations into the ring in the hope that they may add a degree of… how can I put it… common sense...

Government Caves In

Judging by the industrious leaking of government plans to drop the minimum price proposals, it is likely that this post is a waste of time. I say this partly because I support a minimum price (read on…) and therefore feel as though I am on the losing side of this particular battle.

Also, though, I am aware that many far more authoritative voices than mine are urging Cameron to hold firm with the plans; I hardly expect my adjunct to these compelling arguments to be (drunkenness pun ahead) the pea in the mattress. Still - I'll give it a go.

Out-of-Touch Memberships and In-Touch Leaderships

Since long before the beginning of this Parliament, mainstream British parties have largely accepted that we have a national problem. Many British cities become dangerous, unpleasant and frankly ugly places to be at night. The 'civilised' night-time atmosphere of some of our neighbours is not to be found in Britain.

It costs a huge amount in NHS bills - but more fundamentally, it is a problem in and of itself. We should take pride in our cities. Mine is not so much a last-century, draconian viewpoint (as I have heard members of all three major parties proclaim) as an acceptance that we have a collective responsibility as a society. Our public spaces should not be places where the old, the meek or the sober are afraid to go 'after hours'.

Allowing the nightly banishment of civilisation and manners from our streets is hardly taking this responsibility seriously. It is curious that while party leaderships acknowledge this, many members don't. Comments about turkeys and Christmas come to mind.

Nonsense about Liberty and All That

An argument that comes up periodically from liberals (like myself: Mill has pride of place on my bedside table) is that a minimum price is an 'affront to our freedom'. How dare the state tell us what we can and can't do? Nannying… big brother… who are they to say?

The answer, I'm afraid, is that sometimes it's the state's job to tell us what to do. Don't forget, fellow liberals, that law is, in a democracy, essentially a collective act of self-regulation. This applies to seatbelt law, for example, as well as food labelling rules, home production of alcohol, home maintenance of electricity wiring, illegal substances (another whole debate here…), dangerous or endangered pets, animal treatment, fire alarms… and to issues of civil order and public decency, within reason, too. And well it should.

Liberalism deals with freedoms of speech, expression, belief and lifestyle against the tyranny of state or social convention. Aha! you cry. Lifestyle… well, no. Moves to discourage harmful practices like restaurant smoking, junk-food school meals, binge drinking etc. - the latter often objectively damaging to those around you, even if you're enjoying it - are not illiberal. We all accept some limits on our lifestyles in order to safeguard diversity, cooperation and public health. The question is where to draw the line.

So if non-binge drinkers feel unable to walk the streets at night, if squeezed NHS budgets go on repeatedly pumping stomachs or patching people up after drunken accidents, if teetotallers or moderate drinkers are marginalised for not wanting to be a part of all this - then, Madams and Sirs, a minimum alcohol pricing may not be a panacea but it may do some small amount of good. As is it perfectly in keeping with Mill et al.

And I find it disingenuous of some of my fellow liberals to suggest otherwise.


Interested in the factual argument for minimum alcohol prices? Check out this meta-study:

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