Monday, 26 March 2012
The Minimum Price for Morality
This post is an attempt to rectify a previous blog-post. I believe that I came across as somebody simply having an angry rant, someone whose justifications for an argument against minimum pricing for alcoholic beverages as ‘anti-freedom’ are shallow at best. The government sees fit to intrude into the exchange of goods in any number of ways, much of which is done with our permission and as such it is important to explain exactly why minimum pricing is such a bad idea and more importantly, why anybody should care about it.
I like many young people on a budget often gather with friends to drink socially before attending a late night bar or nightclub. This is a practice that the Secretary of State rather cutely termed ‘pre-loading’ and, hilarious as it was to watch her frown her way through this shocking new discovery that University students enjoy drink and won’t pay through the nose for it, her attitude conveys something more insidious. But more on that later.
In my ‘pre-loading’ session I go to the super market to purchase either wine, cider, lager or spirits- though usually lager. I chose my product based on the information that I already have, whether I like it or what sort of social event I’m going to and information available at the shop, what is in stock and how much they would like me to pay for it. Then what usually happens is I simply grab a crate of urine-esque Carlsberg, but regardless, my behaviour at this point is between me, my own experience and the vendors concept of marketing and what they think that I could afford.
Step in, the UK government. You see they are a teensie bit worried about youth drunkenness and for many cases rightly so. The PM himself can attest to the horrors of young adult inebriation, having heavily participated in it in his youth. What they have come up with is a plan imported from Scotland, whereby all drinkers must pay a certain amount of money per unit of alcohol. No vendor is allowed to charge less than this amount of money even if they want to.
Here are just a few problems. First, the government has imposed this measure on moral grounds. They assume that cheaper alcohol sold at wholesale prices will be used by those on low incomes who simply want to intoxicate themselves and cause trouble and strain our health system. If that is the case, then why the blanket charge? The government is intervening through pricing against those who may simply have chosen to drink one brand of alcohol over another, or a person who buys wholesale alcohol to store it as part of their weekly shop. For the poorest of us pennies matter and government intervention in the pricing of goods to make them more expensive doesn’t seem sensible.
Now granted alcohol is a luxury. But again, why does an elected representative get to choose over individuals as to which consumable goods are luxuries and more importantly, why does simply on the grounds of them not being essential good leave them open to price interference by the state?
Second, what is the point in a blanket charge? It will immediately punish poorer consumers, yet it is necessarily low enough not to discourage real alcoholics (as if pricing alcoholics out of the market is something that would ever actually work). Blanket charges aren’t permanent after all. Price inflation will mean after all that for individual consumers, a minimum charge will mean rather less, but for smaller wholesalers as opposed to large supermarkets who can afford and indeed perhaps benefit from the shift in consumer behaviour.
Let’s move on to who actually pays the charge. Consumers do, but to whom? This isn’t an alcohol tax after all so pretty much every penny of this minimum charge is going to go to the sueprmarkets, publicans in chain pubs are going to be benefitting very little and independent pubs are weathering the recession storm by developing microbreweries and so on. The beer producers who actually make products and respond to consumer demand or lack of by either a) failing or b) creating a new product that is better.
Ah, says the government, but these people aren’t doing enough to curb alcoholism. Probably because it isn’t their job. But for the record, they are. Beer producers of imported lager have voluntarily lowered their alcoholic percentage, pubs have found that old English trope of real ale sales booming especially in the under-30 demographic and alcohol consumption has overall actually declined in the last decade.
To address a final point. Who cares? Why do I care enough to type out an article that will almost certainly be unread.
Because this law is symptomatic of a government that like the one before it passes laws not because they are rational acts to protect our individual freedoms or economic equality (depending on what party you support), but simply because “something must be done”. The key word being ‘something’. To end with a quote from Sorkin’s West Wing, “often this office is just as much about not doing things.”
People self correct based on the information that they have at the time and there is no reason to assume that however popular, an elected representative has any more insight into your immediate decisions such as whether to buy a 6-pack of imported lager or not than your next door neighbour Joe and as a result, there is no reason why they should have the power to intervene.