Monday, 7 July 2014

Neoliberalism again

A long time ago now, I wrote an academic article about how alcohol policy under both Labour and the Coalition can be characterised as neoliberal.  The current advice for people who publish in academic journals is to get the ideas out to the widest audience possible using a variety of means.  I of course tweeted about the article, and emailed it to a few people who asked, and this blog post is a further attempt at getting the message out.

One of the things that I knew would happen, but still bizarrely surprised me when it inevitably did, was that after the initial publication, the world kept turning, government policy didn’t change, and not very many people even noticed I’d published anything.  Maybe writing this will go some way to making me feel a bit better about that.  More people are likely to read this blog than the article, at any rate.

The point of the analysis was to challenge the assumptions of some academics and public health professionals that alcohol policy has betrayed a certain ‘hypocrisy’ since the 2003 Licensing Act, or even before, with the market gradually becoming less regulated but the concern around alcohol – and ‘binge’ drinking specifically – increasing.  How can the government complain if people respond in the predictable way when an environment is established that makes them feel they have been ‘invited to binge’?*  This is the argument of the research group I think of as beginning with Hs: Hall, Hadfield, Hobbs, Hayward (and Winlow and Lister).

My response – this obviously fantastic article that you should download here (I can send a limited number of free electronic copies if you email) – is that in fact this is all perfectly consistent when considered as part of a ‘mentality of government’ called neoliberalism.  I’ve written about neoliberalism before, but I thought it worth thinking it through again given that some people I’ve spoken to about it haven’t really followed what I mean.

Unfortunately, neoliberalism isn’t a very clear term (in that sense, it’s got a certain affinity with ‘binge’ drinking already).  Mostly, people associate it with a slightly fuzzy idea that global banking and big business have been allowed to run riot over the past 20-30 years.  It’s got its origins in genuine political philosophy and economics as a policy framework, endorsed by people like Hayek.

However, that’s not quite how I’m using it.  In the context of social policy, it’s developed a slightly different meaning, as it’s used to apply to detailed analysis of how public policy has operated in practice, not as a theoretical ideal.  The key point is that recent social policy has not been liberal in the sense of genuinely believing that (for most people) an individual’s way of ordering their own life is by definition the best, since they will know their own desires and dislikes – and yet the solutions put in place to the perceived problems have tended to operate at the level of the individual (education, building resilience) rather than reshaping structures and environments (the ‘free’ markets are left as they are even when they are acknowledged to be producing undesirable outcomes).

I’ve suggested that UK alcohol policy (since 1997 at least) is a classic case of this approach.  While the Beer Orders were (at least by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission) justified as getting a fairer deal for consumers, the 2003 Act was justified for a myriad of reasons, but never as fostering the unconditional good that people should be able to drink when they want.  That was a conditional right: you had to drink in a particular way to be considered to be exercising this right ‘responsibly’.

This condemnation wasn’t only related to cases where genuine crimes were committed; government was swift to condemn ‘binge’ drinking even where there was no real harm (apart from offence) done to anyone apart from the drinker.  In fact, the harm even then seemed to be understood as shame more than anything else – the 2008 ‘Would You?’ campaign seems more like a lesson in how to behave as a respectable member of society than how to drink without engaging in crime and disorder.  (I'm not certain that the state should be too concerned about whether I've ripped my jacket or broken my CD player.)

The current government has suggested (wrongly, I’d argue) that the 2003 Act and other bits of Labour policy have produced serious problems.  However, the solution of the Coalition has not been to significantly change that environment, but to keep it broadly the same.  We haven’t actually had minimum unit pricing, and despite a consultation about ‘Rebalancing the Licensing Act’ the most notable changes mooted were actually to make it easier to sell alcohol, by loosening regulation of ‘ancillary’ sales (e.g. at hairdressers) and getting rid of the personal licence – something I’d suggest suits big companies most of all, which are precisely the organisations that commentators generally worry have made the night-time high street an unhealthy drinking environment.

You may or may not agree with this analysis (though I’d recommend you read the article in full first, before criticising!) – but I hope my motivation for writing it will seem reasonable.  I’m not necessarily convinced that all the things government worries about regarding alcohol are genuine problems, or that the state specifically should be addressing them.  However, given it has these concerns and makes policy based on them, we should have a sensible approach to devising solutions.  With the article I wanted to highlight the assumptions behind policymaking that mean the solutions proposed to the perceived ‘problems’ surrounding alcohol are (unnecessarily) limited.  That is, even though the outcomes produced under the current set-up aren’t what the government wants, it only really looks at solutions that address individuals.  I think we’d make better policy if we opened up the whole range of options that have existed through history.  In the article I mention the Central Control Board, as always, but that’s just by way of example; there’s all sorts of initiatives that could be on the table, but currently aren’t.

I’d like to think that the article and this post can contribute in a small way to opening up that debate.  And readers could always contribute by leaving a comment mentioning your favourite policy ideas that don’t currently get an airing…

*It's possible to argue that this idea that things have got worse as a result of looser licensing is misleading, but it's certainly the way that the current government portrayed the situation in the 2012 Alcohol Strategy.  This is partly possible to argue in the face of declining alcohol consumption because successive governments have defined 'binge' drinking simply as the sort of drinking they don't like, with norms different from everyday life, rather than based on quantity consumed alone.

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