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.”
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.