Why minimum alcohol pricing is a terrible idea
Governments in both England and Scotland are planning minimum-pricing regimes for alcohol. These are a terrible idea, not only if you’re a liberal, but even on their own terms. There are three main issues associated with minimum pricing, all of which are conflated by minimum price proponents (this article is a good example of their muddled thinking, and indeed their sanctimony; this piece is expanded from a comment I left there).
1) is it reasonable to expect the government to take measures to reduce the harm that alcohol does to people who aren’t consenting adults?
Yes of course. Hence, tougher powers for councils to revoke the licenses of pubs and clubs associated with violent behaviour, tougher enforcement of bans on sales to minors, better treatment for domestically abusive alcoholics and support for their families, and so on are a good idea.
Nobody has come up with any evidence *at all* that minimum pricing would have any impact on this. Booze consumed in pubs and clubs is always going to be above any minimum price level that encompasses off-trade sales, because *that markup is what pays for the pub to exist*, so the town centre violence argument is nonsense; and bottle-a-day alkies are merely going to have less money to spend on other, less important things like food.
2) is it reasonable to expect the government to impose restrictive measures on consenting adults, based on the probability of health risks in later life *to the person being considered*?
Not in my opinion. If people choose to lower their life expectancy from 80 to 60 but have a better time on the way, that’s entirely their lookout.
This is where the puritan wing (‘teetotalitarians’) and the liberal wing of the left diverge: the puritans want to compel everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate. Which, y’know, is pretty much exactly the same as religious fundamentalists compelling everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate.
3) Even if you accept the puritan argument, is a minimum price a good way of achieving it?
Absolutely not, it’s a fucking terrible idea, because THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF THE POLICY GO TO THE BREWERS AND THE SUPERMARKETS. Suddenly, there’s a floor to price competition in the market, which means that everyone involved makes far more profit. This is what a cartel *is*.
If Cameron wasn’t in the industry’s pocket, he’d be suggesting that alcohol tax were raised to ensure that, based on the current lowest-cost production, all forms of booze cost at least 50p a unit (formal policy, actual rates reviewed every year based on what was available in the market). This would have the same impact on consumption of cheap booze as the proposed policy on drinking, whatever you think that impact may be, but the money raised would go to schools’n’hospitals rather than to Mr Tesco and Mr Heineken. At the same time, it would encourage people above the ‘cheap booze’ cutoff point to moderate their consumption, which is a desirable goal if you support the puritan argument (d’you think Christopher Hitchens drank cheap cider or Special Brew? Not exactly…)
The only reason to support a minimum price over higher tax is if you think the poor should have their lifestyle choices forcibly controlled by the state, but that the middle classes shouldn’t. In which case, you’re a bit of a scumbag, nah?
(disclosure as always: I’ve done consulting work for the drinks industry in the past and will probably do so in the future.)