The UK government's latest attempts to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse reflect a typically muddle-headed, ultra-liberal approach to dealing with social ills.
Having previously abolished long-established curfews on drinking in public places throughout England and Wales, the government is now spending £7 million on TV commercials which show the physical dangers of alcohol abuse.
In part, the ads are a response to rising alcohol-related admissions to hospital casualty departments. Leading medicos warned the government last year that up to 70 per cent of visits to casualty departments are now due to alcohol abuse.
The problem is especially acute among young people. Britain still has one of the highest rates of teen alcoholism in Europe.
Young people see the falling price of alcohol and its ready availability in supermarkets and clubs and assume that it is a safe substance. It is nothing of the kind.
The NHS recommends a daily alcohol limit of two or three units per day for women (around two small glasses of wine) and three to four for men (or two pints of lager). Yet the government admits that up to ten million adults in England alone are regularly drinking above those limits.
The problem is so acute that government health warnings may soon appear on drink bottles, similar to those featured on cigarette packets.
In 2005, the government abolished the old, well-established licensing laws and enabled many clubs and pubs to serve alcohol for a full 24 hours if they so desired. The rationale behind this was that it would stagger the hours during which drunks would be let out onto the street.
It doesn’t take a doctorate in advanced rocket science to appreciate the flaws in this logic. Having booze available for longer simply means that more people have more opportunity to drink themselves into a stupor – and local communities and families suffer the consequences for longer.
Now that the true impact of relaxed licensing practices is out in the open, the government is falling back into a predictable pattern used by neo-liberal political thinkers the world over.
The thinking goes like this: first you must abolish ‘draconian’ laws and, when public behaviour fails to improve in line with your projections, replace those laws with a programme of re-education, in this case via TV.
Since all people are intrinsically good, knowledgeable, wise and socially responsible, says this theory, laws that might encourage healthy living and discourage misbehaviour are unnecessary and intrusive. All people need is a little education to fill in the gaps in their understanding.
Once people know the pitfalls associated with negative behaviour, they will do their utmost to avoid them.
In practice, of course, this is unreasonably idealistic. The fact is that human beings often behave in ways which they know may damage their health because such behaviour seems to offer real or imagined pay-offs in the short-term.
Cigarette smoking is a case in point. Long before any causative link between smoking and lung cancer had been conclusively proven, many smokers knew intuitively that smoking was injurious to their health.
Many could feel its impact on their breathing and its effect on their appetite or sex drive. Many more recognized that a habit which, if you try to give it up, breeds high levels of psychological and physical anguish can hardly be considered beneficial.
In spite of this, thousands of people persisted with their smoking habit. Many did so because they found stress-relief in the little rituals of smoking, the comfort mechanisms that seemed to make life a little more bearable.
This tendency for people to overlook long term health issues in favour of immediate gratification is especially evident in tough times. One leading British psychiatrist said in 2007 that as many as one quarter of the population suffers from depression of some kind. The recent recession and the rapid rate of change in our society are just two factors behind clearly increasing levels of distress in our society.
In his excellent book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James argues that materialistic living is another major cause of distress. The drive to possess more things and higher status, he says, are symptoms of a virus which is running rampant through society, a disease he calls ‘affluenza’.
Facing pressures like these, people all too often ignore sage advice and act on impulse. All the advertising campaigns in the world will not assuage that drive to find short-lived relief through unhealthy practices like alcohol abuse.
Another tenet of the ultra-liberal agenda is the notion that anything which is old or which predates our own supposedly enlightened age must by definition be outdated and expendable. The only laws that are truly wise are those devised within the past few decades.
After all, the thinking goes, history follows an evolutionary curve which soars ever upward. Our generation is the repository of wisdom far surpassing that of our forebears. Previous generations saw things only through a glass darkly, whereas our own vision is crystal clear.
Those who hold to this socio-evolutionary view will not admit the possibility that old laws may have endured for a long time simply because they actually work, providing benefits for both the individual and the social fabric.
Of course, the old licensing laws didn’t bring an end to drink-related civil disorder. No law can, on its own, alter human behaviour.
The best a law can do is to draw attention to where the lines of acceptable or healthy behaviour lay and to discourage action beyond those limits by imposing penalties. The decision to stay within the parameters is a matter of human will.
The licensing laws were far from perfect. Many people flouted them. Better education back then may have helped the situation, even if only to encourage drinkers to avoid the last-minute binge before closing time. Yet it could only really have worked in the context of laws that supported it.
Yesterday, the government also announced a series of measures aimed at reducing physical abuse of girls by their boyfriends. That this type of abuse is on the rise is a troubling development and one which must be dealt with.
But does anybody for a moment believe that this initiative will prove effective if the current laws against abuse are simultaneously relaxed? No.
Education and legislation go hand in hand. Fair and balanced legislation must be on hand when education fails and people behave in ways that injure themselves and others. It provides the ‘stick’ which can be applied when the carrot of education hasn’t worked.