As someone familiar with cutting edge science and those who work at the frontiers of medical research, I have always been struck by the backward totalitarian nature of public health. In a world in which hard science and enlightened medical opinion is positively buzzing about personalized medicine and the benefits of treating people as individuals, public health continues to push ideas that are more in keeping with early 20th century totalitarian doctrine then 21st century medicine.
ASH is of course one of the biggest culprits. Completely closed to the concept of constructive debate it spreads its misery through quasi-religious adherence to strict dogma and increasingly ridiculous attempts to claim that all opposition to its policies are the result of tobacco industry conspiracies. The similarities between the rhetoric of ASH and the propaganda of the former Soviet Union is quite uncanny at times but as far as I know, ASH has never actually advocated Soviet policies. I am sure that its employees would do if it suited the cause and involved more free money from the taxpayer but the opportunity seems not to have arisen.
However, the same can no longer be said for their cousins in the neo-prohibitionist movement who are now openly advocating that the UK government take its lead on alcohol policy from the Soviet Union. In an academically inept, blatantly political piece published in The Lancet, a group of liver doctors who in their conceit, believe themselves experts on the causes of alcohol abuse rather than its consequences, propose Gorbachev’s 1985 crackdown on alcohol in the Soviet Union as a template for alcohol control in the UK.
The Lancet article is a rework of last year’s effort in which the authors made the embarrassingly simplistic claim that the decline in French liver deaths was down to an alcohol advertising ban. Both were uncritically covered by the BBC whose representatives have assured me that they have no bias when it comes to public health despite the fact that they showcase minimum price campaigners however obscure on what feels like a daily basis.
This year Gilmore et al wax lyrical about Soviet Russia and how it achieved a 12% reduction in alcohol related mortality in just two years. The implication being that our government would see similar results if only it would do what the neo-prohibitionists ask of it. Minimum pricing is of course at the top of their list because such a policy, although likely to be utterly ineffective in the form currently advocated, will give them a powerful lever with which to control the proletariat as they ratchet up future campaigns.
History sees Gorbachev as a heroic reformer in many senses, but he had no qualms in using the full power vested in him as an autocratic dictator to press home an aggressive anti-alcohol policy. Measures included:
- Closing vodka distilleries
- Destroying vineyards in the wine-producing republics of Moldavia, Armenia and Georgia
- Restricting the times during which shops and restaurants could sell alcohol
- Banning restaurants from selling hard liquor
- Raising the legal age for alcohol consumption from 18 to 21
- Effectively increasing prices by over 75%
- Creating a state sponsored temperance society that grew to 14 million members
His policies were as our neo-prohibitionist friends tell us immediately successful and he achieved a short term significant fall in alcohol related deaths. The price of vodka rose by 25% in 1985 alone and by a similar amount in the following year. The Lancet article unsurprisingly fails to mention the longer term consequences of the campaign.
Although Gorbachev did theoretically reduce legal alcohol consumption by 50% according to some estimates, the Russians have a long tradition of distilling their own firewater known as Samogon. The state crackdown:
- Stimulated the illegal alcohol industry
- Galvanized organized crime to take advantage of a burgeoning black market
- Led to an increase in deaths from poisoning caused by illicit alcohol.
By the third year of the campaign, despite severe custodial sentences being in force for home brewing, illegal Samogon was being consumed in larger volumes than legal alcohol, the policy was hugely unpopular, it was costing the government a fortune in lost revenue and it had significantly benefited organized crime. It was abandoned in October 1988.
Some will argue that had the Soviet Union persisted with its vigorous campaign, the fall in deaths during the first 18 months would have continued and the end would have justified all of the repression. So it is worth pointing out, bearing in mind the UK activist’s obsession with price, that the increase in alcohol related deaths in the early 90s took place against a background of high prices for legal alcohol that was a legacy of the Gorbachev campaign. Although some aspects of the campaign were reversed, the price stayed 75% above 1985 levels during the Russian mortality crisis of the early 90s.
Others, including some who claim to be liberal, will of course assert that the Soviets did not go far enough. Perhaps they never thought of putting vodka in olive drab bottles with massive pictures of diseased livers on them? You can be sure that Ian Gilmore has.
By Chris Oakley. Chris has previously posted on Liberal Vision: Alcohol Taxation: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, A Liberal Tolerant nation? and What hope is there for liberty if truth becomes the plaything of political lobbyists.
Our thanks to englishrussia.com for the poster.Tags: alcohol, Gorbachev, prohibition, The Lancet
For the vast majority of human history, the size of the economy was small compared to the size of the biosphere. But over the last hundred years or so, this balance has changed remarkably due to the increase in the number of people in the world and the growth in each person’s consumption of goods and services. […] Due to economic growth, humanity now uses eleven times as much energy, and eight times the weight of material resources every year as it did only a century ago. The global economy is now so large that it is undermining the natural systems on which it depends. The result is a wide range of global environmental problems: climate change, biodiversity loss, stratospheric ozone depletion, deforestation, soil degradation, and the collapse of fisheries. The list goes on (O’Neill et al., 2010, pp. 23–26).
Here is another account of the same phenomenon:
From 2 million or 200,000 or 20,000 or 2,000 years ago until the 18th century there was slow growth in population, almost no increase in health or decrease in mortality, […] increase in wealth for a few, and mixed effects on the environment. Since then there has been rapid growth in population due to spectacular decreases in the death rate, rapid growth in resources, widespread increases in wealth, and an unprecedently clean and beautiful living environment in many parts of the world […] In the 19th century the planet Earth could sustain only one billion people. […] Now, 5 billion people are living longer and more healthily than ever before, on average. The increase in the world’s population represents our victory over death (Simon, 1994, pp. 22–23).
Unlikely as it may seem, both authors are really describing the same planet, representing two diametrically opposed sets of assumptions. The first view, ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘Steady State Economics’ (SSE), holds that the planet’s biosphere is highly fragile and can only cope with a low level of human economic activity. If the latter exceeds its ‘planetary boundaries’, it overstretches the biosphere’s carrying capacity, and thus depletes the world’s ecological capital: according to the SSE view, the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to is akin to the lifestyle of a prodigal heir, who squanders the family wealth in a mindless consumption frenzy. The only way to prevent disaster is to downsize the world economy to a level which the planet can absorb. Since this is deemed impossible in a capitalist economy, an economic system in which the state tightly controls all economic activity is advocated.
The second position, ‘rational optimism’ or ‘sceptical environmentalism’, rejects the SSE assumption that people are just passive consumers of the resources they stumble across. Rather, people are seen as potential problem-solvers, who can overcome resource constraints given the appropriate institutional setup: a system of secure property rights and the free formation of market prices.
Suppose demand for resource X was growing at a much faster rate than supply. A Steady State Economist would typically extrapolate this trend into the future, calculate the date we will ‘run out of X’, and describe the consequences in a melodramatic fashion. A sceptical environmentalist would argue that if this trend continues, the price of X will increase. This entices X-suppliers to look for ways of tapping into hitherto inaccessible X-deposits, and X-consumers to look for ways of making more with less X. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are enticed to look for ways of substituting X.
Whichever approach one finds intuitively more convincing, the empirical track record of the optimist position is vastly superior. Over the past 200 years, all kinds of resources have been predicted to run out and all kinds of ecological disasters have been predicted – next to none has ever materialised.
On the macro level, the long-term trend since the Industrial Revolution has been for the world to gradually become more populous and more prosperous. If the global ecosystem was in danger of bursting under the weight of our economic activity, it would have burst long ago. Instead, all kinds of social, health and environmental indicators have improved.
So what explains the continued fascination with doom-and-gloom theories? Most modern-day Malthusians make no attempt to hide their loathing of mass consumerism (e.g. New Economics Foundation, 2009). So there may be a predisposition, on their side, to ascribe negative consequences to a process which they are opposed to anyway. This highlights, once more, the danger of using economic analysis in order to seek confirmation for one’s preconceived intuitions.
Kristian Niemietz is the Poverty Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he has been based since 2008. He studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca and is currently studying for a PhD in Public Policy at King’s College London. He has interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia and the National Statistics Office of Paraguay and worked for the Institute for Free Enterprise.
This article first appeared in the Economic Affairs Student and Teacher Supplement (Feb 2012) and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Institute for Economic Affairs.
We are delighted over here at Liberal Vision to welcome a new group to the Lib Dem family (drum roll please…) LIBERAL REFORM.
A while ago we wrote about a new group that was considering forming a grass roots organisation aiming to bring together (and facilitate discussion and policy development) amongst those in the Liberal Democrats who are sympathetic to economic liberalism. At the time Mike Bird (one of the founders of Liberal Reform) said:
“The aim of this organisation is provisionally to promote economic liberalism within the Liberal Democrats. We hope to be a ‘big tent’ of opinion, and will welcome anyone who feels that there are areas in which the party could be more open to promoting a free market. We seek to co-operate with other groups within the party, and would like to integrate ourselves as part of the liberal mainstream in this country.
Our outlook is not solely economic: we wish to see our party advocating four-cornered liberalism – liberal economics, in a framework of personal, political and social liberalism”.
There has surely been a need for a grassroots membership group that speaks to the mainstream of the party embracing the free market, for quite sometime. According to a Lib Dem Voice survey from April last year, 35% of Lib Dem members and activists describe themselves as ‘economic liberals’, now a bigger presence in the party than those who would describe themselves as ‘Social Democrat’ (noting that less than half describe themselves as “centre left”). So the time is right for a group such as Liberal Reform.
“We agree with Nick Clegg’s statement at our Autumn Conference in 2011 that “we are not on the left, and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal”.”
So go check our their brand-spanking new website, sign up on their supporters page and join us in wishing them all the very best.Tags: Liberal Democrats, Liberal Reform, Mike Bird
Interesting piece over on on Digital Politico highlighting the fact that a new left group is about to emerge in the Liberal Democrats. I generally avoid using “left/right” terms, as I often find them pretty damned unhelpful. But given that this new group is called “Liberal Left” there seems no more appropriate way of describing them. And given that two of the key names of this new group appear to be Linda Jack, Richard Grayson who both signed the now infamous letter to the Guardian endorsing Compass Plan B , I guess “left” it is.
With so little information to go on, it is not yet clear whether this should be seen as an ideological “split” emerging within SLF, a tactical manoeuvre to position SLF more toward the centre ground, or just a gang of folks who feel that they can operate more effectively in a smaller group.
Whatever the reason, whilst the new group’s name certainly “says what it does on the tin”, I wonder, with hindsight, whether they will come to regret it….. LEFTovers, LEFT behind, LEFT for dead and so forth…
For more details about the new group go read Digital Politco’ post.Tags: Liberal Left, Linda Jack, Richard Grayson, SLF
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