Work has been pretty busy lately, so I hope readers will forgive me posting about what might seem to be ‘old news’. But, as anyone who’s studied policy relating to alcohol or other drugs for any length of time will surely agree, the issues tend not to go away, but cycle round to be viewed in a new light. And it’s precisely that sense of history that’s prompted this post.
In February, the IAS released a report talking about the economic costs and benefits of alcohol. The author, Aveek Bhattacharya, wrote a brief and clear summary for one of the LSE blogs.
The blog started with a neat ‘parable’, credited to economist Frederic Bastiat, of a shopkeeper whose window is smashed, who tries to look on the bright side by saying that at least replacing the window will keep the glazier in business. The point is, of course, that the shopkeeper would have been able to spend the same money on something else had the window not been broken, and kept maybe a cobbler in business while seeing a tangible improvement in his own life. And similarly, it’s claimed, we shouldn’t worry about harming the economy if we reduce alcohol consumption or even the money spent on alcohol, as this can simply go on something else.
My initial reaction was to take issue with Aveek on two points. First, whether the alcohol industry is really anything like the glazier in the story. Isn’t the role of the glazier played by the police, NHS, or alcohol charities, repairing damage caused by alcohol?
But I suppose if the alcohol industry really is the glazier, then we’re not suggesting that all windows/alcohol are bad, or a waste of money; simply those where the spend is the result of some kind of damage. By my understanding, the analogy would then run that we shouldn’t be vandalising (or consuming somehow irresponsibly), but windows/alcohol can be useful, beautiful, and part of a healthy economy. Windows in themselves aren’t undesirable or immoral.
And this got me thinking: maybe I’m over-thinking this.
Aristotle! if you had had the advantage of being ‘the freshest modern’ instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech, as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor, — that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else? (Eliot, The Mill on the Floss)
So let’s aside whether the alcohol is like glass, and focus on the second area where I was going to take issue with the argument: that economics has anything to do with this at all.
Setting aside Aveek’s personal position, as everything I’ve read by him suggests he’s open, honest and sincere, I started to wonder how well this argument fitted with whatever corporate view the IAS might have. I just wasn’t convinced that their hearts would really be in it.
I started to think of why I set up this blog in the first place: frustration at the disingenuous nature of much public policy debate in the two fields I’ve worked in. Drug treatment was justified by painting ‘addicts’ as dangerous, and higher education funding was justified by boosting economic productivity.
Neither actually gets to the heart of why I think these things should be supported. Drug workers haven’t come into the field to reduce crime, and most academics don’t see their vocation as being to enhance graduate ‘employability’ or develop a productive ‘spin-out’ company.
Moreover, from a pragmatic point of view, I’d worry that when economic times get hard despite the continued existence of Oxford University, or acquisitive crime becomes less of a hot-button topic, the power of those narratives falls. You haven’t won the fundamental argument that these policies are a ‘good thing’.
Similarly, I wondered, was economics really why the IAS opposed alcohol, or certain forms of alcohol consumption? What if the data shifted and suggested that alcohol was a genuine boost for the economy? (That’s certainly a tactic being used by people seeking cannabis policy reform.) Would that change their minds? Of course not. So I was going to write about how the IAS is using economics disingenuously to justify what is really about morality or public health.
But then I realised I was doing exactly what I complain about other people doing: simplifying the argument into an either/or, or looking for the single factor that ‘explains’ their position.
I stepped back, and started to think about how, in reality, we tend not to separate economics from morality. Whether it’s debates about benefits or executive pay, the argument can rarely be boiled down to a question of objective market factors.
And the same applies to this issue of alcohol and morality, health and economics. There’s a long history of ideas of productivity being linked with discipline, morality and temperance – just think of the Protestant Ethic and the strong influence of non-conformists in the temperance movement.
In fact, the IAS has its roots precisely in that tradition, being an outgrowth of the UK Alliance, itself founded by non-conformist advocates of temperance.
(I’m hoping I don’t get pulled up too much on my knowledge of Victorian religion and the temperance movement – I’m just making a broad point.)
So my point – apart from illustrating how I argue against myself in my own head – is simply to note how several motivations and perspectives might well come together at once. When we think about productivity, we might well be thinking about morality too, and that might be tied up with an idea of a healthy, active body as much as an economically productive mind. It really is a coherent vision of how we could all be fitter, happier and more productive if we only drank less.
The only problem with this is that, precisely because the worldview is coherent and consistent, it challenges the idea that these debates about economics are somehow objective. This is, as ever, a discussion about ‘the good life’, to return to Aristotle. And, inevitably, we won’t all share the same vision of what that is.