Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Minimum alcohol pricing is empirically and philosophically wrong

If you want to see the "conservative" in the Conservative Party and see how little "liberal" there is in the Liberal Democrats then you only need consider that the UK Government is about to announce plans to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol in England and Wales (the Nationalist Socialist People's republic of Scotland has already announced similar plans, but half of the population there is probably so sloshed it hasn't noticed yet).

- 45p per unit of alcohol will be the minimum price set;
- BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) offers with alcohol will be banned.

Of course the plan is motivated (isn't it always) by a desire to do good.  It is to save alcoholics from themselves, to save binge drinkers from themselves, to put a price barrier upon behaviour that politicians and bureaucrats have deemed to be bad for people (and of course, drinking to excess your entire life can kill you).  It is also being sold, absurdly, as an antidote to anti-social behaviour in evenings, because it is believed that people wont be drunk and obnoxious in any serious number any more.

Few policies can show such a direct distinct gap between the general public and what they perceive as a ruling elite of politicians and health do-gooders who believe they know what is good for others.

Of course, it punishes everyone who drinks alcohol, particularly the poor.  Of course retailers agree, because it will obvious reduce sales, even though minimum pricing raising their revenue per product, they obviously know that this isn't market pricing, so wont be revenue maximising.   Those on the left and health do-gooders  of course have no time for the retailers, as they profit from high levels of consumption, but unlike them the retailers are actually making two sets of people happy - themselves and their employees, and the people buying the products, who health do-gooders want to treat like children.

It is easy to picture the average pensioner who likes a wee dram in the evenings, now having to pay more, because highly paid health do-gooders want her treated no differently than a lager lout.

How dare they?

The two public policy problems identified are:
- Criminal behaviour whilst drunk; and
- Diseases due to excessive alcohol consumption.

In both cases it is grossly unfair to target all those who drink alcohol.  Only a small minority of people who drink alcohol get drunk and assault, vandalise or threaten others.   That is where the state has a role.  At the places and times where such behaviour becomes an issue, the Police should be present as a deterrent and to take away those creating danger to others and their property.   More could be done if the public areas where this happens were privatised, and placed under the control of adjoining property owners - who could then choose to ban drinking outside, they could choose to hire their own security staff who could order people to leave if they are causing trouble.   Bear in mind that shopping malls don't tend to have this behaviour, because of that reason.   

On the health concerns, there is already taxation on alcohol that is meant to reflect this, but the bigger issue is that the vast bulk of people in the UK (and in most Western countries) have decided that the costs of health care are to be socialised, and so everyone pays in proportion to the taxes collected from them.  If you accept this then part of accepting it is that some people will not look after their own health, others will do so, and it will seem very unfair that some impose enormous costs upon taxpayers and others do not.   Yet if you want to fix this, the only fair way to do so is to have people pay either directly or to an insurer that assesses risk.  Fiddling with alcohol pricing becomes the thin end of a wedge that already includes tobacco, and should also target foods high in saturated fat, salty foods, foods high in sugar, adventure sports and contact sports (for injuries), sunbeds, holidays in the sun, sedentary jobs, driving or riding buses short distances, etc. 

The potential scope for health do-gooders to tax and regulate everyone's lives to protect a few is substantial, and it is philosophically ground in the view that some adults not only know best what is good for other adults (which objectively may be true in some circumstances), but that they have the right to force them to do what we want or force others to penalise or reward them, whether by regulation, taxation or subsidy.

Furthermore, the Adam Smith Institute has released a study that demonstrates that the empirical evidence for the value of minimum alcohol pricing is flawed.  It argues that "the estimates of how minimum pricing will affect health outcomes have overwhelmingly come from a single computer model—the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model." the study "argues that the model is based on unreasonable assumptions which render its figures meaningless."

The executive summary states it as follows:

"Amongst the problems with the Sheffield model is its false assumption that heavy drinkers are more likely to reduce their consumption of alcohol as a result of a price rise. Its calculations are based on controversial beliefs about the relationship between per capita alcohol consumption and rates of alcohol related harm. Its assumptions about the relationship between price and consumption have frequently been refuted by real world evidence."

The Sheffield model provides figures without estimates of error and ignores statistical error in the alcohol-harm relationship. Data is drawn from different populations and applied to England and Scotland as if patterns of consumption and harm are the same in all countries. When data is not available, the model resorts to what is essentially numerology. Insufficient data is provided for the model to be recreated and tested by third parties.

The model ignores the likely effects of minimum pricing on the illicit alcohol trade, it disregards the health benefits of moderate drinking and fails to take account of the secondary poverty created by regressive price rises. The decline in alcohol consumption seen in Britain in recent years has not led to the outcomes predicted by the model.

We conclude that predictions based on the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model are entirely speculative and do not deserve the exalted status they have been afforded in the policy debate.

Minimum alcohol pricing may have a modest effect on alcohol consumption, but it will have that effect disproportionately on the poor, and disproportionately on people who do no harm to others.   As such it is a grotesquely regressive measure that should be opposed not just by libertarians, but those on the left who purport to care for the poor.

It will have a negligible effect on alcohol abuse, and a negligible effect on health, but will look as if "something has been done", which is the pressure that the predominantly statist media puts on politicians.

It should not be implemented.  If the concern of government is about behaviour, then it should undertake its core function and police the streets, and change welfare from being a handout of cash to being another form of payment that can't be used for alcohol, at least directly.   If its concern is about health, it should challenge the state religion of the NHS.  

Of course what it really cares about are small groups of feral welfare dependent chavs being drunk and obnoxious to middle class restaurant and theatre goers on Friday and Saturday nights.   That's a matter for the Police, but also to note that the welfare state is funding many of those people to drink.   The left wont tackle that, because it will see the idea that welfare recipients drink away their benefits as being a generalisation and unfair on those who don't - which is correct - yet the fact remains that taxpayers do pay for the alcohol consumed by those on welfare.

Meanwhile, it should emphasise that alcohol consumption is a matter for adults to decide for themselves, and get off their backs.

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