Sunday, August 05, 2012

Government is a pusher, not a killjoy

Before we start, a thought: how many of us change our opinions as a result of what we read on the Internet? Are you prepared to have an open mind for the few minutes it will take to read this?

1. We are conditioned to think that Prohibition in the USA was a government-imposed scheme that failed because of popular demand for alcohol, and thank goodness it ended because it meant no more dangerous concoctions and violent crime. Actually, it was a success (in terms of both health problems and crime statistics) and ended because the US government in 1933 was desperate for revenue. By the way, Prohibition was NOT a ban on making or consuming alcohol! If you want to follow up, here's a link to an economist (Don Boudreaux) who is generally of the free trade persuasion: Alcohol, Probition and the Revenuers

2. We also hear of the Gin Epidemic of the early to mid 18th century, but perhaps not so often why it happened. The government's motivation is made clear in the title of Queen Anne's 1703 Act "... for encouraging the Consumption of malted Corn, and for the better preventing the running of French and foreign Brandy." This Act (see p.389 here), and it seems a number of others, deregulated the sale of spirits:

Since the 1960s, the British government has progressively relaxed restrictions on access to alcohol, with predictable results. I cannot say to what extent MPs (and in what way) may have been persuaded by commercial lobbying. In 2003 a Labour government extended drinking hours.

3. Tobacco brings in a great deal of revenue (£12 billion a year). James I may have expressed his displeasure in 1604, and the health effects are now (though still disputed) generally better understood. The government makes various gestures, resented by smokers (and non-smokers: I now go inside the pub for fresh air), but it needs the money.

4. The same people-loving New Labour government that relaxed laws on drink, did the same for gambling, and now (e.g. Harriet Harman in the Mail today) is prepared to admit it was wrong. But last year, it earned £1.6 billion in government revenues.

5. A Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee has been hearing evidence bearing on drugs liberalisation this year, notably from comedian and uber-shagger Russell Brand, and there is some concern that the committee may be biased, or at least receiving biased and misleading information and terms of reference. Even if this effort (if it is an effort) fails, I expect it will be repeated: as the IRA told Margaret Thatcher, they only have to be lucky once.

I suspect that governments have learned how to serve their own wretched interests by couching the arguments for addictive products in terms that appeal to our illusions of liberty and personal self-control. Far from being killjoys, they are enablers battening on human weakness.


Comments coming in on Orphans of Liberty offer me the chance to clarify and develop the argument:

Q: So, your argument is that nobody would choose to gamble/smoke/drink if the government didn’t push it on them and take their filthy revenue from the activities…?

Even though you say the reason for the ‘Gin Epidemic’ was “preventing the running of French and foreign Brandy.”

My answer:

No. But I refer you to what happened during Prohibition: it was permissible to brew and drink alcohol, but not to manufacture and distribute it on a commercial basis. So that cut out businesses and the government, who got together in 1933 to reverse not an Act, but a full-scale Constitutional Amendment.

Here’s the deal (but of course it will always be a fantasy): let the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and drugs be unregulated and untaxed, but also kept completely private and uncommercial. Grow your own, smoke your own, drink your own, share with friends in your own home or backyard – but not for money or money’s worth.

Libertarians (rightly, in my view) complain about the power and interference of government – but need to include commercial enterprises in their strictures. As I keep saying (but who listens in the world of the Internet?), Big MD/CEO is no better than Big Brother – especially when they combine, as in this case.


Sobers said...

"Here’s the deal (but of course it will always be a fantasy): let the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and drugs be unregulated and untaxed, but also kept completely private and uncommercial. Grow your own, smoke your own, drink your own, share with friends in your own home or backyard – but not for money or money’s worth."

Hmm. So anyone who lives in a high rise block of flats can't drink, smoke or take drugs because they don't have the facilities (or the capital) to produce them then? Whereas Lord Muck can smoke, toke and drink himself to death using his vast wealth and acres? Not exactly very fair (or likely) is it?

Your scenario is Prohibition all over again. The vast majority wanting to use the products, but lacking the means/wealth to produce them themselves. Commercial interests wanting to supply those demands, but prohibited from doing so. Enter the criminals, or the suppliers become criminals. Either way you get a War on drugs times three - drink, drugs and tobacco all being produced and sold illicitly, and the State desperately trying to stop them.

Well done, you've just made the problem three time worse.

Sackerson said...

I refer you to my first paragraph, and the actual experience of Prohibition in terms of health and criminality.

Sobers said...

So all the people who currently smoke will just stop over night, as growing your own tobacco in the UK isn't possible? And all the people who like a glass of wine in the evenings will just give up, or start making parsnip wine instead? And all the spirit drinkers will have their own stills? (That should kill a fair few people what with the explosions, and contaminated spirits I would have thought). And all the currently illegal drug users will either stop (because they take drugs that you can't make yourself, or grow in the UK) and take up dope smoking, having turned over their garden shed, or spare room, to a few marijuana plants?

Get real. Drug policy needs to deal with the here and now, not some Arcadian ideal. There is massive demand for mind altering drugs of all kinds, some currently legal, some illegal. That demand will not go away if you outlaw commercial production. It just drives the producers into criminality, and makes criminals of the consumers as well.

Sackerson said...

Rather polemical, Sobers, and I'm wondering where the anger is coming from.

The main point of my post is that government is conflicted about the growth of substance misuse (including alcohol and tobacco), and has in the past been an enabler of the producers and distributors, for financial reasons. Also we're run by Baby Boomers who still think in terms of the weak spliffs they used to smoke at Oxbridge.

As to the demand, make these things freely available and doubtless more will try, and there will be more victims, and more wasted talent and energy as teens and tweenies fail to establish themselves in the world of work.

A thing I think libertarians don't try to face up to, is balancing their own desires against the consequences for others; they try to cut the Gordian knot with some absolutist statement about complete free will.

Sobers said...

I'm angry because I'm fed up with people who want to control others all the time. What is it with that drives someone to say 'What you are doing is wrong, and I'm going to stop you doing it, even if I have to use violence to imprison you'? What is the mindset that says 'I know better about you and your life than you do, and I'm going to make you do what I think is right'?

Yes the State taxes (some) drugs, and is a kind of pusher. But it gets greedy. If the State was prepared to take a reasonable cut, enough to pay for the externalities of drug consumption - ie to pay for the extra costs to the NHS, to pay for the policing of town centres etc, then the taxes on all drugs would be low enough that they would not attract any criminal element who want to get in on the action. No-one smuggles cigarettes into Spain from the UK, its all the other way around, because the UK State sees tobacco duty as a nice little cash cow to pay for its spending habit.

People should be free to f*ck their lives up if they want. Indeed it is only through the total freedom of people to f*ck themselves up that society can decide collectively to change. If you constantly prevent people from doing themselves harm, and protecting them from the consequences of their own actions, then there will never be any improvement in behaviour. Society needs to hit rock bottom, and then it can improve itself. You cannot legislate for moral improvement. The Temperance Movement grew out of the degradations that cheap gin etc created. Victorian values of hard work, self improvement etc were a similar reaction to the consequences of too much drink, and what effect it had on peoples lives.

We live in a society that protects people to a limited extent, via prohibition and via the welfare system, but allows millions to live lives of low level misery and degradation because they have no incentive to improve themselves. By freeing people to make bad decisions, and suffer the consequences thereof, we create the conditions for improvement as a society. It wouldn't be pretty, but its the only way to improve things. The alternative is to bump along just above the bottom ad infintum.

Sackerson said...

It suits those in government to tax consumption becasue it lessens direct taxation on the rich. Interesting article by Richard Murphy today:

I'm not comfortable with the Darwinian approach, it's not just what perhaps you might see as wallyish soft-heartedness but also that the winners aren't winners solely through their own efforts, any more than the losers are entirely responsible for their woes.