6 September 2010

Alcohol, uncertainty & 45 pence...

Something to be said on alcohol this Monday morning, I fancy. As you will likely have heard, Nicola Sturgeon has proposed the minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol. The cheapest nine unit bottle of sour red wine would set you back at least £4.05, under the new dispensation. The opposition parties seem to be in the mood to dispense with the proposal outright. For myself, I'm ambivalent  about the proposals and have been trying to reason out exactly why.

One of the reasons why I've never particularly warmed to a plain consequentialist political analysis is a pervasive lack of confidence on my part about making iron predictions. I think trying to muse through the consequences of a decision is an excellent procedural good, but having done so,  it is also hugely important to make space in one's mind for the various unanticipated and unforeseeable results which might flow from that choice. Brace for paradox and hold on to this modesty, even as you must make a decision. If we waited for perfect knowledge, we would be paralysed. If we mistake our current best guesses for more solid causal necessities, we set ourselves up for failure. And worse, we retain no way of accounting for that failure, no way of retaining the dignity of the attempt.

I don't think it is just me who feels the political bind of all the things I don't know. Micro-economists might be able to winkle out what a game a starched rationalist might play, but they seem ill equipped to predict with any confidence what ordinary folk will do. In some ways, it is probably one of the political difficulties of our age. If we lose confidence in command and control, if we admit that our best-intentioned schemes can go down in disaster, aggravating the problem we seek to alleviate - or still more strangely, partially resolve some of those problems we had in view but contribute to other forms of difficulty and disaffection - who yet has the strength to propose anything, except misguided fatheads and shallowpates? The sharp spur that usually kicks me out of such thoughts of quietude - ironically enough - is the thought that being immobilised by such uncertainty is also to embrace a reactionary conservatism of a sort I'd also find unacceptable. We might also add, to extend the consequentialist argument a stride, that maintaining the status quo is also a choice and not the irresponsible haven it sometimes appears. We should supplement this thought with another that is equally paradoxical: the status quo isn't what it once was either. Staying the same is not really an option available to us in human affairs. Even as the surface characters boast of their continuity and stability, their substance slithers and eddies around their roots. At every juncture, our confidence is assailed and our doubt frays at the social threads we so eagerly hoped to knit into new and better weaves.

Many of you who hold to a dispositional theory of politics will doubtless read the foregoing and chalk me up as in some sense conservative-minded, thinking the worst and wanting the flush of confidence and optimism which is regularly taken as an important distinction between left and right, broadly conceieved. You may be correct in that assessment, but only up to a point. On a societal level, excessive alcohol consumption and its correlated social harms represent a classic case of uncertainty, I think explaining my own ambivalence towards Sturgeon's specific proposals. That hand wringing sense that social problems are almost insurmountable, perhaps incorrigible, their skeins of multi-causality so knotted and interlaced that only a fool would do anything but approach them gingerly. I'm sure others must, at least in moments, share these apprehensions and sense of petrification before them. What will minimum alcohol pricing do? Introduce a minimum price for alcohol, certainly. But what else? How will it affect behaviour? We're not crashing about in the fog, totally benighted. We've all got our own best guesses. Some believe that minimum pricing will have a significant impact, if the unit-price was set at a sufficiently significant level. Others suspect that raising the price of rotgut shan't have the desired outcome at all, but will merely further tax the impoverished and the desperate as they shell out for the same old quantities of liquid forgetfulness.

We should draw one very sharp distinction and not confuse ourselves when examining and participating in this argument. Notice that those I've adduced above are primarily concerned with the efficacy of the policy and uncertainties as to outcome. From these, we should keep distinct those who found their opposition on other, normative judgements about what the State should not be about and sod the consequences. Life and rhetoric is never so neat, of course, but my point is that the different positions are appealing to radically different, even incompatible objections. A parliamentarian might argue that "we shouldn't do it and it wouldn't work anyway..." but for her, the second clause is largely redundant. She could well have said "we shouldn't do it, even if it would work..." and been perfectly consistent. It seems to me that the opposition in Holyrood is presently vacillating between these two distinct critiques of the policy.

Like most swords, incertitude is two-edged. Just as I feel uncertain about what positive effect the policy might have, skepticism also assails the claims of those bursting with certainties about minimum pricing's necessary failure. I suggest that we shouldn't be approaching this problem like Alexanderians, with swords in our hands. Not if we're wise. I do understand that this is politics, subject to its own oppositional and triumphalist logic, where uncertainty is all too readily sketched as weakness and portraits in blatherskite certainties abound. Yet a treacherous rhetorical weapon is always a danger to the hand. While it is tantalisingly easy to assail the uncertainties of your opponents, your own have to be locked away, denied, reduced to private dubieties. An honest, productive and pragmatic politics cannot exist when such a divided consciousness reigns. Indeed I'd go so far as to insist that Uncertainty has to win back its dignity in our public life, has to emerge from the shadows backstage. The keynote here must be to embrace that uncertainty and think experimentally.  For that reason, I was at first delighted to hear that Sturgeon was offering to add a so-called "sunset clause" to the policy, allowing parliament to return to the issue when solid data was available and reflection could be rather more informed. This seemed to me - and seems to me - an excellent notion, not least because it is a recognition of modesty by the Scottish Government and represents a formal mechanism to repeal the Act if its consequences are not as hoped, after a period of operation. Against this, one might argue that all Acts can be reviewed in parliament wills it. True enough in theory, perhaps, but recognising the experimental quality of the proposal underlines the absence of epistemological security involved in any honest attempt to bring social change, something our politics would do well to take to heart more generally.

The best laid plans of mice and men may gang aft agley, after all.


  1. I only heard about the 'sunset clause' this weekend. Seems rather an opt-out after all the propaganda regarding reports and the backers of this increase.

    Unfortunately, as you say, neither the university study or the Canadian one can give any true statistics regarding hiking the price of alcohol, yet the SNP are desperate to make us believe the reports are the result of years of scrutiny of price rises. That's where they're erred. Trying to introduce a policy based on hypothetical theories results in ridicule at times.

    They should leave this idea well alone, start ensuring what current laws we do have are enforced and forget about a legacy. The way they've governed Scotland in the past three years is legacy enough as they've done rather well.

  2. I think it is a complex issue and of course nothing is certain.

    To me, it seems a logical policy, I voted for it and as far as I am concerned we have absolutely nothing to lose by trying it. If it has no effect we can re-visit it. I don't accept arguments that it is an attack on the poor. In fact the poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of alcohol abuse so if the policy reduces the amount of white lightening people get through then good.

    But what is more to the point (in my view) is that we should not accept the argument that somehow putting the price of drink up is unfair or a violation of peoples' rights. Alcohol is not one of life's necessities. It's not like bread or milk or water and we should not treat it in the same way.

    What really swings it for me is the fact that the entire medical profession, the police, social work leaders and so on are lobbying hard to get politicians to support minimum pricing.

    That is highly unusual. Indeed to have such an alliance of public service professionals lobbying for one particular policy is perhaps unprecedented. Clearly they have been knocking at an open door with the SNP but I am surprised that Labour has been so obstructive. After all, if they are elected in 2011 (as they claim they expect to be) they will have to deal with the problem and rejecting the advice of the most senior experts in the field seems rash.

    I am not arguing that ministers must always accept the advice of experts incidentally - but when they reject it I think they should have a good reason for doing so.

  3. All actions have incalculable consequences, sending out ripples way beyond our vision. It's why JS Mills utilitarian moral philosophy is, ironically, without utility. We can never fathom the greater good of the people.
    But I'll never shrink from waving a finger at a road hog for fear of the effect on inter-planetary gravitation.
    Confident people (and confident nations) take risks - the alternative is stagnation.

  4. There was an interesting shift in how this policy was presented, some months back when it was moved from MacAskill's justice purview to Sturgeon's health-based portfolio. As you note, in many ways attempts to garner the support of authoritative figures has been notably successful. Certainly, if Labour vote this policy down, it will be much more difficult for them to explain away than an essentially normative case made by the justice brief. I agree with voiceofourown's point - I'm mostly just owning up to my own ambivalences. Like Subrosa, I think that would have been more helpful if the government had owned up to its own uncertainties and emphasised the experimental quality of this policy from the outset. Unlike Subrosa, however, I sympathise with your analysis there Indy. There seems no harm in giving the policy a try.

  5. I don't think it's the case that the SNP has been successful in chasing support from the medical profession/police etc. I think it's the other way around.

    Frankly I don't think any political party has ever sat down and thought hey, let's put the price of drink up - that'll win votes. It's not exactly populist policy-making! Almost everyone drinks after all, to varying degrees.

    No, I think the SNP Government is acting quite genuinely out of concern for public health. And the statistics are frightening.