The law of unintended consequences


Over on the Spectator's CoffeeHouse blog, Fraser Nelson highlights the unintended consequences of Australia's decision to raise the tax on alcopops:

Jacking up pre-mixed drink prices by 70% cut their consumption by 30%, but pushed bottled spirit sales up by 46% as kids mixed their own. And - surprise, surprise - the people pour far more generous measures than they were getting with the Bacardi Breezers. Result: a sharp 10% hike in the amount of alcohol consumed in Australia, the precise opposite of what was planned.

The reason this is relevant to the UK is that the Conservatives have proposed a similar measure here, as part of a strategy to tackle binge drinking. The Tory proposals may avoid this problem, since they would also reduce the tax rates on 'light' beers and ciders by a corresponding amount, hopefully making these softer drinks a more attractive option. But then again, they might not. Kids drink alcopops because they want to get drunk but don't like the taste of alcohol. And that means self-mixed drinks, not beer, are the obvious alternative.

The whole political response to Britain's 'drinking problem' is littered with such unintended consequences. The truth is that Britons, like other Northern Europeans, have always been heavy drinkers. It's an ingrained, cultural thing that is not easy to change. What has exerted a moderating influence in the past is social pressure – in particular, the fact that drinking was centred around community pubs. If you wanted to drink, you had to behave yourself or risk being thrown out. And because you would know people there, and be known to them, you wouldn't want to embarrass yourself.

Yet it is these community pubs that have been hit hardest by government interference, like the costs imposed by licensing requirements and other regulations, or the smoking ban. As they close down in droves, drinking has been shifted from these pubs to impersonal venue bars, with their happy hours and two-for-one promotions, or to street corners and park benches (for the less discerning).

As that has happened, the social pressures that once kept the 'English disease' in check have slowly disappeared.