The Coalition Government have announced plans to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol, and a curtailing of drinks offers, most notably Buy-One-Get-One-Free’s much beloved by students and Happy Hour aficionados. The thinking behind the move is straight forward enough; to reduce binge drinking and all the negative social and health effects that come with it. For a libertarian, it’s enough to drive one….well, to drink.
Before we look at the moral legitimacy of the proposed legislation, it’s fist worth knocking the health aspect into the long grass. Few will argue that excessive alcohol is bad for you. This is hardly new. But Brits drink a lot. We always have. For us, the amount we drink is determined by the situation we find ourselves in, not the price tag. Do some digging and the justification for the policy, at least from the health side of things, seems to come from a single study. And even this has been pulled apart. I won’t quote it verbatim, but it’s certainly worth a read.
Even if you take the study out of the equation, the logic behind the policy is fundamentally flawed: if cheap alcohol leads to binge drinking, shouldn’t we all be drunk off of our faces all the time?
As with all legislation aimed at curbing behaviour, it punishes all for the excesses of a few. It also betrays an uncomfortable paternalism held by many in power. Too many policy wonks and law makers are utterly convinced that the majority of British people are simply too dim to make responsible decisions for themselves. ‘If the proles can get drunk cheaply, (they will, goes the logic). ‘Therefore we, the enlightened elite, need to limit that availability’. It reduces me and you to the level of babies, even cattle, not knowing what’s good for us, save the instant gratification of gorging ourselves. I don’t know about you but I don’t need a nanny or a shepherd.
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves at this point that MP’s enjoy several subsidised bars in the Palace of Westminster. They obviously don’t think cheap booze is a danger to them…
As I touched on before, drinking is first and foremost a cultural act. Alcohol is social lubricant. Whether it’s a pint of bitter at lunchtime, a shared sip from a hip-flask while golfing, wine at a dinner party, shots at a works bash, champagne on an anniversary, beer watching the match, or Pimms to wash down a BBQ, we British have woven alcohol into every facet of our society and culture, regardless of background class. It is a great leveler, an almost democratic institution. Drinking is one of the few activities where Dukes and dockers are on a par. And that is why minimum pricing is such a short sighted and ham fisted intrusion. The very poorest in society will continue to want to drink, only now it will cost them more.
But, I hear you cry, can’t they just drink less? Isn’t this just to stop the hard core drinkers?
Firstly, why should the vast majority of people who drink perfectly responsibly have to restrict their pleasures for the sins of a few? And secondly, the hard core drinkers and bingers will continue to do drink as they did before, only now they’ll have less money to spend on food, clothes and consumer goods…you know, the stuff the ailing retail sector desperately needs us to spend more on.
The other motivating factor behind this legislation is one that we are sadly all too familiar with; a government that need to be seen to be doing something. The statute books groan with legislation. In thirteen years Labour passed close to three thousand new laws in a decade of legislative hyperactivity. Can you honestly say your life is better for it?
But before you start stockpiling 2ltr bottles of Frosty Jacks, take heart. Salvation may come from a most unlikely quarter. The EU has warned that the scheme may fall foul of EU rules governing the free movement of goods.
It’s a sad day when a Tory led administration has to be taught a lesson in small government from the EU…