Sanity, liberalism and hypocrisy. And MORE BOOZE!


4:45 pm - August 26th 2010

by John B    


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Much of the most interesting work that I’ve done has been paid for by the drinks industry. So I’m about as impartial on this article as Mao Zedong on ‘whether or not Chinese-style communism was a good idea’.

Nonetheless, the often-missed point about the drinks industry, is that we’re an interesting, jolly, fun and indispensable part of society. A wedding without some champers, or a night out with the boys without a few beers would be shit.

This is good, and people who appreciate the value of FUN understand the importance of the drinks industry to the world of FUN. It’s almost certain that without the existence of the drinks industry, the world would be much less FUN, and indeed it’d be like Saudi Arabia, which is NO FUN AT ALL.

Alcohol can obviously be harmful. For example, if you consume your recommended 2,500 calories a day through the medium of drinking alcohol forever, then you’ll probably die.

But I’m a libertarian when it comes to drugs. The concept of throwing people in jail so that their lives won’t get fucked up strikes me as even more ridiculous than screwing for virginity.

However, all that down, I’ve been arguing this week with my libertarian friends. They suggest that the British Government’s former advisor on drink and drugs, Professor David Nutt, who’s suggested a whole load of new alcohol marketing restrictions that all Western countries would do well to follow, is a mad idiot.

Which is fine, except that when the same chap suggested that ‘bad drugs’ like hash and ecstasy did no more harm than booze, and so we probably ought ought to be able to smoke a reefer or two and pop the occasional pill without being thrown in jail, he was feted by libertarians and slated by right-wingers. It’s almost as if there was some kind of conspiracy…

Yet there really isn’t one. David Nutt’s views on alcohol are a ridiculous and extreme way of dealing with a non-problem… and yet at the same time, compared to the way in which people who wish to ingest drugs that aren’t alcohol are treated, they’re as liberal as liberal can be.

The odd part of problem is that his views are completely sensible and consistent. Because he’s a doctor rather than a tabloid polemicist, he believes that compromising your health with booze is just as bad as compromising your health with MDMA.

But also, because he’s a doctor rather than a philosopher, he believes the correct solution is to make the law Minimise Medical Harm, rather than to allow people to live freely.

In real life, the correct solution is to minimise non-consensual harm to third parties – which would best be done by getting rid of all drugs restrictions, but enforcing laws against harm done.

And so, much as I love evidence-based policymaking, we shouldn’t ever listen to them on this front. So viva booze, weed, pills, Valium, poppers, and anything else that makes life more fun. And sod anyone who tries to ban them.

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About the author
John Band is a journalist, editor and market analyst, depending on who's asking and how much they're paying. He's also been a content director at a publishing company and a strategy consultant. He is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy and also blogs at Banditry.
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Reader comments


Can’t we just ban life’s crap then we woudn’t need to numb ourselves with drugs, much cheaper, although I’m not sure if banning crap would be considered unlibertarian.

I thought we weren’t allowed to agree whole-heartedly on anything? Spoilsport.

Hmmm,

I’ve seen my wife’s alcoholic step-father go through liver failure and then have a liver transplant, followed by continual problems of getting the anti-rejection drugs right. It is not a happy experience and on at least two occasions he was close to death. Yet he is now 75.

My Dad was tee-total, he didn’t like drink at all. He suffered ill health for the last decade of his life and died at 68. (OK so he was also in a Japanese internment camp as a child, but other children who were in the camp are still alive.)

My conclusion? Genes. Want to spend 40 years living on a “liquid lunches” and still be alive at 75? Make sure that you have parents with resilient genes. Oh and hope that the NHS is still around to fund your care during your decades of ill health. Hmmm, perhaps you should just rely on the genes.

The drinks industry is no different to any other. They want to steal your money.

Much of the most interesting work that I’ve done has been paid for by the drinks industry. So I’m about as impartial on this article as Mao Zedong on ‘whether or not Chinese-style communism was a good idea’.

In this world of corporate politics that opening statement should be mandated!

Well done, sir!

Well, it’s hardly theft if you give them your money of your own free will and receive something in response. In that, I think they call that a “purchase”.

Is it just me, or is there a definite momentum forming behind decriminalisation of currently-illegal drugs?

I can’t agree with your ‘sod evidence-based policy-making’ stance, though. Maybe what you mean is ‘reject the evidence-based policy suggestions sourced from this group, and prefefr the evidence-based policy suggestions from this other group instead’.

What this really reveals is the idiocy of those who – when David Nutt was on their side – yelled about how we need an “evidence based” policy on drugs. What we need is a political policy: and politics should be that of liberty and the to do as one pleases with ones own body.

Good point Reuben… though that is then arguing against drug legalisation, no?

9. Shatterface

‘Is it just me, or is there a definite momentum forming behind decriminalisation of currently-illegal drugs?’

I thought that when I was a student in the 80s.

My dad thought the same in the 60s.

It goes through 20 year cycles.

10. Shatterface

‘And so, much as I love evidence-based policymaking, we shouldn’t ever listen to them on this front. So viva booze, weed, pills, Valium, poppers, and anything else that makes life more fun. And sod anyone who tries to ban them.’

Agree on sodding the prohibitionists – but Nutt’s stance isn’t an argument against evidence based policy.

He’s a doctor and the only ‘evidence’ he considers refers to *harm* – the social benefits aren’t among the ‘evidence’ he considers.

11. Shatterface

‘The drinks industry is no different to any other. They want to steal your money.’

Just what *do* you do for a good time, Sally?

(And no, I’m not trying to chat you up!)

There are three main reasons why these issues don’t look to me as simple as ‘it’s my body, so it’s a matter of my free choice what I put in it’:

1 – in the case of addictive substances, it’s not at all obvious that it’s the user’s ‘free choice’ to keep taking them after an initial period. It seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that the ready availability of heroin to addicts is desirable on the grounds that it enables them to live life the way they want to live it.

2 – what substances I put into my body has implications for other people, not just for me. Is there really no case for restricting my freedom to put myself into states where I’m vastly more likely to harm other people, or to become dependent on substances in a way that compromises my health, my ability to work and care for children, and so on – especially if the state is then responsible for my care and that of my dependents?

3 – even if an individual’s freedom to put whatever he wants into his body is absolute, it’s not obvious to me that it is therefore illegitimate to place any restrictions on the *promotion* of harmful substances.

Even if alcohol marketing and selling restrictions were somehow “socially beneficial” I would still oppose it as a matter of principle. People should have the right to get off their tits on booze as long as they pay for the consequences and any harm they cause to others. Frankly I don’t see why I should be prevented from buying cheap alcohol just because of a minority of misfits who ruin it for everyone else.

Evidence-based policy? Nonsense.

You shouldn’t use evidence as a basis for policy, but as the means of informing it.

Evidence tells you smoking causes cancer, that younger smokers are more likely to smoke for a longer part of their lives, and that cancer costs the NHS untold billions.

It doesn’t tell you whether smoking should be banned, taxed, legalised, encouraged, or subsidised. For that you need an ideological framework that allows you to make moral/political judgements: a framework for dealing with fairness, and individuality, and liberty and progress.

Evidence informs policy – it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, the basis of policy. When it is, you end up with people who think they are neutral evidence-observers choosing the most intuitive solution to a problem they see in the evidence and claiming the evidence mandates it. Ie “Smoking is bad for people, therefore it should be banned”.

I admired Dr Nutt for sticking to the strict evidence regarding drugs (which I think should be legalised) and saying that cannabis’ criminalisation was not justified solely on the basis of its severe consequences, because it was not more dangerous. That is either a fact or it is not, and I trust his judgement. However, the evidence alone doesn’t suggest that drugs should be legal – that is a combination of libertarian principles of adult autonomy, some utilitarian leanings re saving money on prisons, then informed by the evidence. There’s a difference.

“people who appreciate the value of FUN understand the importance of the drinks industry to the world of FUN”
…maybe we have become over-reliant on drinkies to underpin “fun”

@15

Us and about 4000+ years of culture, you mean… humans everywhere since time began have been getting intoxicated via stuff that grows in the ground (grapes, herbs, etc). It’s hardly a modern phenomenon.

17. Shatterface

‘1 – in the case of addictive substances, it’s not at all obvious that it’s the user’s ‘free choice’ to keep taking them after an initial period. It seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that the ready availability of heroin to addicts is desirable on the grounds that it enables them to live life the way they want to live it.’

If you don’t believe alcoholics have any ‘choice’ why not just lock them up ‘for their own good’?

Once you disregard agency it’s easy to disregard their humanity too.

We should all be allowed to get as wasted as we want, however the damage drink and drugs do is from the pissy lives we lead and our desperation for escapism (as JoJo says)

When I’m happy – i.e. not working for some exploitative bastard, I drink and smoke far less than when I am.

Attacking drink or drugs is yet another example of attacking the symptoms and not the cause. A common faux pas of all politicians – maybe because they’re simply too stupid (or lazy) to think things through properly.

However a note should be reserved for the role of drink advertising, it’s designed to encourage people that ‘their lives can be better through drink’ – I mean think of some of those wanky smirnoff ads or those other mixer drinks. Yeah, you can be funny and cool if only you drink some of our shit. Many people fall for this and when they don’t become funny and cool, they certainly don’t stop drinking.

They did the same in the 30’s with cigarrettes – I always say if your product is needed then you don’t need to advertise it – only products which have little ‘use value’ require advertising.

Between this and the later Malcolm X thread, I think I may be on some substance or other, as there is something surreal going on…

But as Morus says, evidence is not a reason to do something. That we allow doctors to say ‘we must legislate thus…’ ignores a key democratic process, which is that there has to be consent to such legislation. But there is a further issue: the idea that if an expert or group of experts say something needs to happen this is the necessary evidence to do so often seems to lack any review of the science behind the idea (journalist are especially good at taking statements at face value), which if you are using evidence is surely key?

Shatterface –

“If you don’t believe alcoholics have any ‘choice’ why not just lock them up ‘for their own good’?

Once you disregard agency it’s easy to disregard their humanity too.”

Of course you have a point – people don’t stop being people just because they’re addicts. But for that very reason, if addicts themselves report that their ability to exercise free choices is compromised by their addiction (as they do), we should respect them enough as rational agents to believe what they’re saying.

And if someone’s ability freely to choose whether or not to use more heroin or alcohol is completely undiminished by habituation to those substances (as you seem to be suggesting), what on earth does it mean to say those substances are ‘addictive’?

Of course we shouldn’t lock alcoholics up ‘for their own good’, but we *should* take seriously the idea addiction restricts rather than enhances personal freedom. Hence it’s at least plausible that placing some restrictions on the availability or promotion of addictive substances is a pro-freedom, not an anti-freedom measure.

And if someone’s ability freely to choose whether or not to use more heroin or alcohol is completely undiminished by habituation to those substances (as you seem to be suggesting), what on earth does it mean to say those substances are ‘addictive’?

It means nothing.

There is no “addiction” that has not been overcome. All human beings make choices and it is the ability to exercise free will that defines us.

The freedom to do so is more important than the consequences as they are judged by others.

pagar –

I think your hardline view that free will trumps supposed ‘addiction’ is probably only plausible if you believe in something like an immaterial soul that’s not affected by physical processes in the brain. On a naturalist view, it seems overwhelmingly likely that chemically-induced changes to the brain could affect our ability to make free and/or rational choices just as much as our ability to walk in a straight line.

Thanks though – you’ve reinforced my point, which was that insisting that addicts freely choose to take drugs is tantamount to insisting that there’s no such thing as addiction.

Nice blog, interesting comments. And then came Sally.

A member of my family has the same attitude to commerce: everyone selling to him is a thief, everyone to whom he sells is a sucker to be victimized.

What can one say to such lunacy?

I think some of our ancestors never did figure out this ‘trade enriches both sides’ thing on an emotional level.

@ G.O.

On a naturalist view, it seems overwhelmingly likely that chemically-induced changes to the brain could affect our ability to make free and/or rational choices just as much as our ability to walk in a straight line.

Maybe so.

But used as a template for living our lives this view of humanity as powerless in the grip of random biological forces is not enriching or improving. No doubt the active paedophile is responding to sexual impulses caused by chemical changes in his brainyet he has to be held responsible for his decision to act on them.

Obviously we need to provide help for those who want to change lifestyles they have come to see as harmful and to treat those incapable through mental illness but I’d rather allow the lunatic his freedom to jump off a cliff than put him in a straightjacket in an asylum.

GO

2 – what substances I put into my body has implications for other people, not just for me. Is there really no case for restricting my freedom to put myself into states where I’m vastly more likely to harm other people, or to become dependent on substances in a way that compromises my health, my ability to work and care for children, and so on – especially if the state is then responsible for my care and that of my dependents?

I have to point out of course that everything we do has implications for others, and that in turn is the justuification of totalitarian authority. I also have paraphrase Bill Hicks here as I am a regular binge drinker. I’ve drunk lots, and yet I didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t rob anybody, didn’t beat anybody, didn’t lose – hmm – one fucking job, laughed my ass off, and had a real good time. (message here being that if alcohol made people violent or dangerous then I would be violent and dangerous – I’m not – so it ain’t alcohol that does that)

Mostly though I have to take issue with

“especially if the state is then responsible for my care and that of my dependents?”

And this is why we need to abolish tax-funded healthcare and privatise the NHS. The Tories were right in the 40s. Republicans are right now. Socialised healthcare becomes a tool by which the state argues for and wins more control of our lives and clamps down on our liberties.

Worst of all – liberals don’t even seem to mind the NHS being used in this way.

(Note – obviously I don’t want the NHS scrapped – I just want people to stop using it and the taxes that fund it to attack my liberty – since doing so undermines the NHS utterly.)

Margin4error –

“if alcohol made people violent or dangerous then I would be violent and dangerous – I’m not – so it ain’t alcohol that does that”

This is the old “my grandad smoked 80 a day” fallacy. (“If smoking gave you cancer then my grandad would have cancer – he doesn’t – so it ain’t smoking that does that”.) Anecdotes don’t trump evidence in issues like public health and crime.

I take your point overall though, and it’s a strong one. But you and I probably both endorse the principle that it’s legitimate to restrict someone’s liberty to some degree in order to prevent harm to other people and society in general; e.g. we probably both think it would be legitimate to restrict quite severely the liberty of someone who wanted to test home-made bombs in a busy tube station. I am suggesting that this principle plausibly justifies placing certain restrictions on the use and/or promotion of substances we know to be causally linked to harm done to people other than the user and to society in general.

On the issue of the state being responsible for my dependents etc.: I know where you’re coming from, and I’m similarly uncomfortable with the idea that governments could restrict people’s freedom to eat burgers etc. on the grounds that their poor health costs the NHS money. But surely people don’t really have the right to (e.g.) neglect their children in the expectation that the state will step in and care for them?

All I’m really saying is that there are many cases where my taking risks with my own welfare (which in principle I’m free to do) necessarily means taking risks with other people’s (which in principle I’m not) – driving dangerously is one such case, and plausibly, I suggest, so is getting hooked on heroin.

Pagar –

“this view of humanity as powerless in the grip of random biological forces”

– I never suggested the functioning of our brains was ‘random’, or that the normal functioning of our own brains is some sort of alien power we’re ‘in the grip of’.

“No doubt the active paedophile is responding to sexual impulses caused by chemical changes in his brainyet he has to be held responsible for his decision to act on them.”

– sure, but his brain is functioning normally (for him); the ‘chemical changes’ you describe are natural events. Chemical changes caused by the introduction of a drug are not; they’ve been artificially induced. So plausibly at least, there’s a sense in which a paedophile’s desires are genuinely *his* desires in a way that some of a drug addict’s desires are not.

“Obviously we need to… treat those incapable through mental illness but I’d rather allow the lunatic his freedom to jump off a cliff than put him in a straightjacket in an asylum.”

I’m confused. Are you suggesting that we should treat people who have relatively minor mental health problems but not, say, a paranoid schizophrenic tormented by voices telling him to kill himself? Doesn’t he have a right to medical treatment? Wouldn’t it be negligent to allow such a person to commit suicide?

G.O.

“if alcohol made people violent or dangerous then I would be violent and dangerous – I’m not – so it ain’t alcohol that does that”

This is the old “my grandad smoked 80 a day” fallacy. (“If smoking gave you cancer then my grandad would have cancer – he doesn’t – so it ain’t smoking that does that”.) Anecdotes don’t trump evidence in issues like public health and crime.

I think that you will find that the evidence shows that the vast, vast majority of people who drink do not become violent or dangerous.

What certain evidence does show is that the evidence-collection is being skewed, e.g. if you have one drink then slip because the footpath was icy, the beancounters in A&R will put that down as an alcohol-related incident—even though it clearly wasn’t.

This, of course, has a knock-on effect; apart from anything else, it means that Professor Nutt (amongst others) is working from unreliable data and is thus coming to erroneous conclusions with all of the best intentions.

These best intentions will be submitted, taken up by some idiot in Parliament and, next thing you know, everyone has been issued with a card that prevents them buying more than three drinks in a day (something that was quite seriously proposed by the Head of the Royal Society of Surgeons in Edinburgh a few years ago).

And lots of people will stand up and say how wonderful this restriction on freedom is, because it is morally right. And they will ignore the fact that it hasn’t stopped alcoholics being alcoholics, and that more and more people are drinking dangerous home-brew (just as they ignore the fact that there are 10 times the number of registered heroin addicts now than when doctors were stopped from proscribing morphine in 1971) and that everyone is a little more miserable than they were before.

Ugh.

DK

DK –

“I think that you will find that the evidence shows that the vast, vast majority of people who drink do not become violent or dangerous.”

Sure – and if only 10,000 people a year got pissed in the whole of the UK, and only 1% of them were likely to crash their car, beat their kids, smash up a chip shop, start a fight etc. as a result, there wouldn’t be too much of a problem. (You’d have to be pretty unlucky to find yourself a victim of one of those 100 ‘problem’ drinkers.)

But what if 10,000 people get pissed every Friday and Saturday evening in a one-square-mile city centre, and 1% of them are likely to crash their car, beat their kids, smash up a chip shop, start a fight etc. as a result? Now you’ve got a pretty huge problem, and thousands of victims of alcohol-related crime every year in that city alone. Surely you don’t have to be a rabid authoritarian to think it might be fair enough to place some limits on the availability, cost and promotion of alcohol in those circumstances?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Sanity, liberalism and hypocrisy. And MORE BOOZE! http://bit.ly/cYVNke

  2. Peter Martin

    RT @libcon: Sanity, liberalism and hypocrisy. And MORE BOOZE! http://bit.ly/cYVNke

  3. Dave Boyle

    Nice piece on libcon on booze, drugs and the state. http://s.coop/2ra

  4. Liz K

    RT @libcon: Sanity, liberalism and hypocrisy. And MORE BOOZE! http://bit.ly/cYVNke

  5. Sion

    Booze, weed, pills, Valium, poppers, 'anything else that makes life more fun': lets have a heated debate! http://s.coop/2ra via @theboyler

  6. junkkmale

    RT @libcon: Sanity, liberalism and hypocrisy. And MORE BOOZE! http://bit.ly/cYVNke

  7. It’s that English understatement thing again

    […] Sadly, it was also one of the lines that Sunny decided to edit out of this piece. […]





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