Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The road to hell

...is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. And there have been quite a few people trying to make a partial defence of the Scottish minimum alcohol pricing plan by saying that at least the intentions of its supporters are good. But the question has to be asked as to how benevolent it really is to seek to control the actions of other people, against their will, to achieve a result that you, but not they, believe is in their interest? It is effectively treating others as your property, upon whom you have the right to impose your values and desires. But surely a fundamental principle of a free society is the self-ownership of mentally competent adults. In the words of John Locke,

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.
And John Stuart Mill says on the subject:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others...

...All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

Throughout history, some people have always sought to exercise control over how others live their lives, which was summed up by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein when he said:
The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.
The aspects over which control has been exercised have varied through the centuries, and in many cases what was once severely restricted has become a free-for-all, while in other areas the opposite is true. Often there has been an appeal to religion or some other higher moral principle. But the basic motivation has always been the same – that Person A believes he knows better than Person B how Person B should live his life.

And the end result of such a tyranny of morality may be far from the contented, harmonious society of which people dream. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
A further issue is that people who are experts in one particular field often take a very narrow view of its application to wider society and are blind to any more general considerations. If you know all about hammers, every problem looks like a nail. So the anti-smoking zealots who cheered on the smoking ban and celebrated any reduction in smoking rates were completely indifferent to the fact that it ripped the guts out of working-class communities by destroying the institutions around which they revolved. And if minimum pricing achieves a 2.7% fall in alcohol-related hospital admissions, the anti-drink zealots won’t care that it has made one of the few pleasures available to people of limited means significantly less affordable. In the words of Friedrich Hayek,
There could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals.
The announcement has certainly led to an outbreak of examples of the Burden of Proof Fallacy:
A: “The Scottish government are introducing minimum pricing to reduce alcohol-related health problems.”
B: “I’m not sure it’s going to be that effective, you know.”
A: “So you’re happy to see people literally die from drink, then?”
People occasionally say to me “So what would YOU do to tackle alcoholism, then?” Well, I certainly don’t breezily dismiss the subject, and fully accept that the misuse of alcohol does cause serious problems for some people. But I don’t see it as my role to address that misuse in detail, just as it isn’t the job of the restaurant critic to tackle malnutrition, or that of the motoring journalist to investigate drug-driving.

What I do know is that most people manage to deal with alcohol without it causing any serious problems, and the consumption of alcoholic drinks, especially in company, can bring great pleasure. So any attempt to tackle the specific problems of the minority by indiscriminate, whole-population measures is wrong in principle, may do little to deal with the individual issues, and is likely to have wider negative consequences which, while maybe relatively minor at the individual level, add up across the whole of society. And that applies in many other areas beyond alcohol policy.

Of course there are infinite ways in which the human condition can be improved – this is certainly not a counsel of despair. But they seldom involve curtailing the choices and responsibilities of individuals to force them on to what others see as a better path. Mankind is not perfectible by compulsion. As Karl Popper observed,

The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.


  1. And, expanding the theme, even more common through the centuries... that Person A believes he knows better than Person B how Person B should live her life.

  2. But the question has to be asked as to how benevolent it really is to seek to control the actions of other people, against their will, to achieve a result that you, but not they, believe is in their interest?

    I would question that last part. I know a lot of people who know that reducing alcohol intake is in their best interest, but for whatever reason find themselves unable to do so. I'm not talking about alcoholics, but people who would prefer not to have that glass of wine or pint every evening, but are unable to resist.

    1. Of course some people lack willpower, and the same is true in plenty of other spheres such as eating and gambling. But that doesn't mean everyone should be treated as though they do.

    2. So, in a similar vein the government should look at a minimum pricing per gram on chocolate in order to help overweight people do less harm to themselves? *


      * oh wait, they're doing that with sugary drinks already aren't they?

    3. Well, they have set targets for reduction of calories and sugar in chocolate bars, which realistically can only be achieved by reducing their size. If your bar has shrunk, don't blame inflation, blame the government.

  3. But there are other philosophers ho would argue that it is necessary to control the behaviour of a few for the greater good of the many. In your context that means restricting the availability of alcohol to control the scenes of drunken debauchery that are a feature of our society.

    But, as a socialist, I cannot approve of restriction by pricing since it is directed at the poor and carries the implication that the behaviour of the rich should not be controlled in the same way as that of the poor. No: if the government wants to control how much people drink it should ration the supply be issuing every one with 21 non transferable drink vouchers :-)

  4. "John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill."

    1. Well done Paul. Full marks for the Monty Python reference. :)


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