Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Law Commission on alcohol

Today the Law Commission released its report on reducing harm caused by alcohol. The report [PDF] had already been leaked by DPF last week, so there's no real surprises. As expected, they're suggesting a rise in excise tax, a nationwide closing time, not being able to buy alcohol in supermarkets after 10pm, and (of course) raising the purchase age back to 20.

Of these, the rise in excise tax is the best idea. Alcohol clearly causes social harms, including increased health and policing costs. It is entirely appropriate that its users pay the cost of those harms (just as it is appropriate the users of carbon pay the cost of the harms they are imposing on the environment). While a 50% rise in excise tax sounds enormous, it is expected to result in only a 10% rise in the final price of alcohol. But it will result in an estimated $500 million extra in government revenue to help pay for those costs.

The nationwide closing time is a pretty transparent attempt at social engineering, an attempt to turn the clock back to the days before the 24/7 society and stamp out the late night party culture in our major cities. But, to put it bluntly, it is none of the government's business when people party. Yes, it would undoubtedly make policing easier. So would a dusk till dawn curfew. The reason we laugh at any suggestion of the latter is because of a recognition that people are free to live their lives as they please. Being able to buy a drink at 3am in and of itself does not hurt anyone. Its getting drunk and driving, or smashing windows, or beating people up which does. And those are the behaviours the law should target. Yes, its "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" stuff - but so is arresting people only after they've committed a crime. Both are required by a proper respect for liberty.

(A similar criticism applies to the proposal that supermarkets not be allowed to sell alcohol after 10pm. We know Geoffrey Palmer is old, and grew up in the "good old days" when work happened from 9 to 5 and the shops closed at 5pm and didn't open on the weekend. But society moved on from that quite some time ago, and today the idea of not being able to buy alcohol after 10pm is as ludicrous as the idea of not being able to buy it on good Friday, easter Sunday, christmas day or Anzac day. Its not the government’s business to tell people when to shop, and its certainly not their business to tell us when we can drink in the privacy of our own homes (which is what this measure is aimed at)).

Then there's raising the drinking age again. This is another attempt to turn back the clock, but while it will no doubt be popular with the old (who like to see alcohol as a youth problem and avoid responsibility for their own behaviour), there is a fundamental problem: these people are adults. They can get married or civilised, fight and die for their country, vote - and Palmer thinks they're not adult enough to drink? This is simply paedophobic wowserism. Discrimination on the basis of age is as despicable as discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender. 18 year olds are full citizens (give or take a few old laws which no-one has bothered to fix yet because they're irrelevant in practice), and they should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, there are votes in appealing to the paedophobia of the old, and if the government progresses any of these measures, its likely to be the last one. And with a parliament composed mostly of old people, who grew up ignoring a drinking age of 20, the odds are that they'll probably get away with it.