Alcohol and the “politics of vanity”

Some political causes don’t get as much open support as they deserve because people don’t feel comfortable being seen to support them. One such cause is opposition to minimum alcohol pricing (or minimum unit pricing, MUP). The people it will affect most are excessive drinkers and the poor. No one wants to look like an excessive drinker, and no one wants to look poor, so opposition to MUP tends to be muted — it prompts knowing smirks that say “aha, I think we can guess why this guy is getting worked up about it”. On the other side are powerful politicians and highly-paid health professionals who want to be seen to be doing something about the current moral panic of excessive alcohol use in Ireland. These people do their self-image no harm at all by openly supporting MUP, and some do so with an unbridled zeal.

Of Irish attitudes to alcohol, one of the most unhealthy is our tendency to see it as the “forbidden fruit”, so that all drinking is somehow illicit. (Traditionally, Catholic children were expected to “take the Pledge” — the majority who “busted out drinking” when they reached adulthood retained a sense of shame at having broken a promise.) This gives rise to a widespread sense that on one side we have moral crusaders doing their Good Works, while on the other side we have people who skulk around doing something they ought to be ashamed of. Self-image plays a crucial role for both sides here.

Burke used the phrase ‘politics of vanity’ for political decision-making guided by concern for “how it makes me look” — instead of taking account of circumstances and trying to anticipate consequences. He reserved the phrase for Rousseau, whom he detested both as a thinker and as a man. It seems to me that the politics of vanity is alive and well in Ireland, because all of the main political parties except Sinn Féin support MUP. If we put aside the politics of vanity, and instead take account of circumstances, trying to anticipate consequences, what can be said about MUP?

With MUP, if you drink 6 cans of Aldi’s own brand lager per week, you will pay €426.66 more in one year than you do already. But if you drink craft beer, say — even 60 bottles of craft beer every week — you won’t be affected financially at all. MUP is aimed at “the sort of people who drink Aldi lager” rather than “the sort of people who drink craft beer”. €426.66 is much larger than the water charge, which has people up in arms and protesting all around the country. Why are people not protesting about this outrageous attack on the poor?

MUP is a serious infringement of freedom, and selective one at that because it discriminates against the weakest sections of society. It is nakedly unfair. Wealthier people tend to gloss over this unfairness with the vague thought that “people on the dole shouldn’t be drinking at all, as it isn’t a necessity”. But that is an exceptionally mean-spirited thought. Each individual’s needs differ. Most people need a social life, and whether we like it or not, the reality in Ireland is that social occasions are usually accompanied by alcohol. It might be as modest a social occasion as watching “the match” on TV and sharing a six-pack with a friend — to make it practically impossible for an unemployed person to do even that once a week is just plain vicious. It would threaten their sanity. We are not entitled to perform this sort of “social experiment” on our fellow humans.

Some will object, as Rousseau might, that excessive drinking diminishes the freedom of the excessive drinker, and so preventing poor people doing what they want to do is actually doing them a favour. We are “forcing them to be free”, as Rousseau sinisterly put it. (Let us pass over the question whether this is monumental hypocrisy or Soviet-Style doublethink.) Well then, if charging the poor more for alcohol is doing them a favour, charging the rich more for alcohol would be doing them a favour too. And not doing them this “favour” is harmful and discriminatory in reverse. Perhaps we should raise duty on alcohol across the board, so that the rich pay proportionally more for their chosen brands. This is Sinn Féin’s policy on alcohol, and although I don’t agree with it, it is undeniably less unfair than MUP.

No one doubts that the more alcohol costs, the less of it tends to be consumed. Alcohol probably costs more in Iceland than anywhere else in the world, and it has a correspondingly lower rate of consumption, and a lower death rate from liver disease. But it has a serious problem with binge drinking — a more serious problem than Ireland’s. Like young people almost everywhere, young Icelanders want to get drunk and have fun from time to time.  So they save up their money during the week, and splash out at the weekend. Friday night in Reykjavik is mayhem — although it has to be said, generally good-natured mayhem. Shop windows get broken, but bones usually don’t.

Ireland has a low rate of violence, and a low rate of death from liver disease — lower than the rates in the US, UK, and the EU average. Of course some people do get sick and die from alcohol-related diseases. But we’re doing rather well compared to the rest of the world. Of course some drunks do show up in emergency rooms, causing harm to themselves and others. But Ireland’s problem isn’t all that bad, and health workers all over the world are trained to deal with drunks. Society must be prepared to absorb some harm caused by individuals living as they choose to live, and inevitably making some mistakes. Our emergency rooms expect casualties from road use, and although driving should be as safe as we can reasonably make it, we can never make it completely risk-free. The harm caused by drivers is less severe than the harm that would be caused by not allowing anyone to drive, or by only allowing rich people to drive because only they can afford bigger, safer cars. Our emergency rooms expect casualties from alcohol abuse too. Society must absorb some limited harm of this sort as well, for the greater good of human freedom.

Overall, we Irish are drinking less than we did before, despite falling alcohol prices (in real terms). There is an exception to this general trend: women. As Irish men and women’s roles have converged in the workplace and in the home, more Irish women have adopted the heavier-drinking lifestyle of traditional office workers. Liver and other alcohol-related diseases are on the rise among Irish women, and it is well-known that alcohol is more toxic to women’s metabolism. Of course I wouldn’t be so crass as to suggest that women be asked to pay more than men for alcohol. That would be unfair.

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