It may seem well-meaning, but Cameron’s ‘localist’ approach still has ‘statist’ written all over it. After all, a local authority is still the state, just at a local level. His support for ten Greater Manchester councils’ plan to pass bylaws addressing public disorder and health problems caused by binge drinking would, he said, complement a localist approach – a good idea then. The bylaws would include a law that each unit of alcohol must cost at least 50p. Bylaws, enacted by single councils, could be challenged under competition rules, commented Cameron, as surrounding areas would be selling alcohol for less. There must also be serious doubts about the powers of local authorities to legislate in this way.
These measures would be fundamentally anti-free-market and must, therefore, be wrong in principle. Even leaving that aside, there is little reason to expect that restrictive measures on pricing will curb alcohol abuse. In the United States, prohibition infamously led to a black market and gangsterism. A clamp-down on heavy drinking in Scandinavia has done nothing but maintain a high incidence of alcohol-related issues.
Where the state has not restricted or limited, but enabled, thing appear to be a lot better. In the Netherlands, for example, the providing of ‘disco buses’ to ferry people back after nights out has drastically reduced fights and other forms of public disorder over the 23 years it has been running. Yes, approaches should, of course, be tailored to suit individual areas, but restricting does nothing more than force people to act illicitly.
Furthermore, the state has no reason to get involved unless adults, who have chosen to stay up late at bars, nightclubs and pubs, cause harm or nuisance to others. In a Libertarian world, of course, it would not be the state, but private, more effective groups invested in by individual communities; true ‘localism’, if you like. Restriction would be replaced with exclusion, and the default position would be one of freedom.
The Department of Health’s comment that we need a better understanding as to why people drink does raise a good point; many people may drink too much, and they drink unthinkingly. But whose job is it to deem this to be the case? And then to act on it in a way they consider will lead to a ‘better’ outcome?