Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Knee-jerk reactions

Given the sensationalist nature of New Zealand's crime reporting, the clustering of three random homicides in Manukau in the course of a week was always going to result in a knee-jerk reaction. What I didn't expect was quite how knee-jerk it would be. Today, Prime Minister Helen Clark gave in to the public pressure to appear to be "doing something" by proposing reducing the number of liquor outlets "in poor areas". You don't get much more knee-jerk than that.

The ostensible reason for this is the correlation between alcohol and crime - according to police, "overseas studies suggest that between 50-70 percent of all police work is associated in some way with alcohol" (the basis from this seems to be research from the UK and Australia, summarised in a police presentation here, but there's no real reason to suggest NZ will be markedly different). So, the idea is that reducing the number of outlets will reduce consumption, and reducing consumption will reduce crime.

It sounds convincing, but it breaks down the moment you look at the details. Firstly, as the Herald piece points out, the 1989 liberalisation led to a massive 1250% increase in liquor outlets nationwide, with alcohol being available in cafes, supermarkets and corner dairies as well as the traditional pub and bottle store. But despite that, per-capita alcohol consumption has decreased - we now drink less than we did pre-liberalisation. In 1987 (on graph here), we consumed about 10.2L of pure alcohol per person, mostly in the form of beer. In 2007, it was 9.2L. So much for the first link in the chain. As for the second, according to the police's own estimates, that one litre per head decrease should have led to a 2 - 10% decrease in violent crime. Instead, violent crime has increased (older stats here; I should update them some time). While that doesn't rule out a decrease in alcohol-fuelled crime being masked by an increase from something else (like P), empirically, the police's argument isn't looking very good at all.

As for Clark, quite apart from being knee-jerk and empirically unsustainable, her response's focus on cutting outlets in poor areas also comes across as insufferably snobby and paternalistic. The problem isn't alcohol as such - it's that poor people can't be trusted with it! If the residents of Manukau have access to beer and spirits, they'll run wild, have orgies, commit crimes, and kill people - unlike the richer, whiter inhabitants of the North Shore. It's the sort of attitude I'd expect from the very worst of nineteenth century politicians, not from the leader of a supposedly progressive, modern, 21st-century political party.