Don’t lecture the drinkers, just make them responsible

Alcohol consumption is now a major problem in British society. Drunken teenagers are running rampant in our town centres. Accident and emergency wards are chock-a-block with people who have fallen over, been in a car smash or engaged in a fight because there was too much drink in their blood.

The long term damage can be even worse – even if you aren’t turned into a violent maniac immediately, your heavy consumption of alcohol will mean that you’re going to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver before too long. Therefore, something must be done. And we have a plethora of bureaucrats and politicians employed at the taxpayer’s expense to work out what this thing is, and then to do it.

 
This – in essence – is the mainstream view of alcohol consumption in Britain in 2010. It is a disastrously misguided, wrong-headed and highly dangerous view. The problem in British society is not the consumption of alcohol; it is the loss of personal responsibility. If you choose to consume so much beer that you collapse on the pavement and crack your head open, you can be taken by ambulance to an NHS hospital and be patched up at my expense.

If you drink yourself slowly to death over several decades and need costly long-term health care, I will pick up the bill too. If you commit a violent crime because you’re drunk, you will be sent through the criminal justice system. In very extreme circumstances, you may even be sent to prison. In any event, the bill for your irresponsible activity is sent to me…

Read the rest of the article in The Yorkshire Post.

I agree with the theory – that individuals should be responsible for their own actions, and have to pay for them, but I cannot see how it can be enforced in practice.
The average person who abuses alcohol and causes crime, social problems and medical costs to society is not generally the sort of person who has much income or assets. Unless you are prepared to let people die in the streets because they have injured themselves under the influence and cannot pay, you have a problem.
A minimum price for alcohol is unfair on responsible drinkers, but I think it is fairer that all drinkers carry the burden of alcohol’s cost to society, than the costs are spread over everyone, non-drinkers included.

Jim,
the fact that you can’t always apply a principle in full doesn’t mean policy shouldn’t move a long way into that direction. Sending a bill to the causer of medical and violence-related expenses would be a sensible standard practice, even if it was sometimes aborted for a lack of assets.
If that was politically impossible, I’d still be opposed to mandatory minimum prices. Financing something from general taxation gives it at least a minimal degree of transparency. That is no longer the case if we start splitting society into imaginary groups like “the drinkers”. The wine connoisseur has nothing in common with the binge-drinking brawler.

@Kris:All that would happen under your system is that normal people who had relatively small accidents under the influence would be pursued relentlessly, and the underclass, who would be causing the vast majority of trouble/cost, would get away scot free because they a) have no assets and b) are hard to track down. Rather in the same way generally law abiding folk are done for motoring offences, but pikey transit vans drive around with no tax or insurance, using red diesel, with impunity.
Maybe raising alcohol prices is not the best way, but at least it would force those using alcohol to shoulder some of the burden, whether they were a town centre binge drinker, or a middle class wine buff.

Jim,
I don’t want to ‘pursue’ anyone, middle-class or else. I just want to apply to public services what is a standard practice in the insurance industry: You don’t get reimbursed if you willingly or recklessly cause the incident yourself. A travel health insurance won’t pay if you insist on going rock climbing without safety devices and professional instruction. Why should the NHS be completely different?
Regarding your point on who would ultimately pay the burden, that’s a purely empirical question. I don’t know the precise financial situation of the average drunk troublemaker, so I can’t express a strong view here. But I’d be surprised if they all had zero income and zero possessions.

The NHS is completely different because health is so much more important. Consider what, if anything, you would have agreed the state should provide prior to discovering your place in the world. I reckon you would choose health, figuring any other risks, say property insurance, are much less.

@ben – Why on earth would one choose state healthcare? Even the poorest person would benefit enormously from the innovation and dynamism that would result if health were left to the market.

Ben,
I would have agreed that the state should cover the cost of health insurance in exceptional cases, but certainly not that the state should itself PROVIDE healthcare.

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