Taxes on alcohol and parliamentary scrutiny

June 22, 2009 6:26 PM

There's a fascinating post over on Chris Dillow's Stumbling and Mumbling blog about the possibility that increased taxes on alcohol will increase binge drinking, ceteris paribus:



"Thirdly, there’s a spill-over from genes into social norms. In societies with more blue-eyed/shy people, drinking for Dutch courage, to loosen inhibitions - big binge drinking sessions - is more common. The very fact that an activity is common often means it’s more socially acceptable, which means that non-blue-eyed/non-shy people are also more likely to binge drink. For this reason, binge drinking is much more common in Scandinavian countries - where more people have blue eyes - than in southern European ones. It’s also more common in those US states with biggish populations of Scandinavian ancestry: the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin.


Given all this, it’s possible for higher alcohol prices to increase binge drinking. This is because higher prices can reduce demand for drink among non-shy people. If the gregarious guy who only pops out for one or two doesn’t go down the pub at all, the counterweight to “binge drinking culture” diminishes. The power of the social norm that supports such drinking therefore rises. In the long-run, therefore, higher alcohol prices might increase binge-drinking, even if they do reduce (pdf) overall alcohol consumption."


Many organisations, such as Alcohol Concern, have argued for higher taxes on alcohol in order to curb problem drinking and politicians have often bought that message.  Alcohol duties increased by 2 per cent at the Budget.  Unfortunately, they might be making the problem of binge drinking worse in the long term.


This kind of thing highlights just what a minefield politicians face in setting policy.  It is incredibly easy for well meaning measures to achieve precisely the opposite of what they set out to for a range of reasons.  That's why it is so vital that unintended consequences are taken incredibly seriously, and politicians only interfere when they really understand the problem they're seeking to address and the likely effects of the policy they are implementing.


Unfortunately, most MPs are far too attached to trying to climb the executive hierarchy, and progress up the ranks of Ministers and Shadow Ministers, to do their most important job right and scrutinise government policy.  That means power leaks away from democratic representatives as MPs fail to stand up to the European Union and judges feel the need to step in to make up for the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny.


At the elections for Speaker, going on as I write this post, the candidates seem to all agree that parliament needs greater powers to hold the executive for account.  That is clearly the case, but it seems unlikely that minor changes to how Parliament orders its business will do the trick.  Instead, politicians need to be taken out of the management of public services.  Then they would have fewer distractions from their vital job of ensuring that we get the right policies in place.  There might be fewer initiatives that either dissapear as they are too irrelevant or are reversed as they are too disastrous.

There's a fascinating post over on Chris Dillow's Stumbling and Mumbling blog about the possibility that increased taxes on alcohol will increase binge drinking, ceteris paribus:



"Thirdly, there’s a spill-over from genes into social norms. In societies with more blue-eyed/shy people, drinking for Dutch courage, to loosen inhibitions - big binge drinking sessions - is more common. The very fact that an activity is common often means it’s more socially acceptable, which means that non-blue-eyed/non-shy people are also more likely to binge drink. For this reason, binge drinking is much more common in Scandinavian countries - where more people have blue eyes - than in southern European ones. It’s also more common in those US states with biggish populations of Scandinavian ancestry: the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin.


Given all this, it’s possible for higher alcohol prices to increase binge drinking. This is because higher prices can reduce demand for drink among non-shy people. If the gregarious guy who only pops out for one or two doesn’t go down the pub at all, the counterweight to “binge drinking culture” diminishes. The power of the social norm that supports such drinking therefore rises. In the long-run, therefore, higher alcohol prices might increase binge-drinking, even if they do reduce (pdf) overall alcohol consumption."


Many organisations, such as Alcohol Concern, have argued for higher taxes on alcohol in order to curb problem drinking and politicians have often bought that message.  Alcohol duties increased by 2 per cent at the Budget.  Unfortunately, they might be making the problem of binge drinking worse in the long term.


This kind of thing highlights just what a minefield politicians face in setting policy.  It is incredibly easy for well meaning measures to achieve precisely the opposite of what they set out to for a range of reasons.  That's why it is so vital that unintended consequences are taken incredibly seriously, and politicians only interfere when they really understand the problem they're seeking to address and the likely effects of the policy they are implementing.


Unfortunately, most MPs are far too attached to trying to climb the executive hierarchy, and progress up the ranks of Ministers and Shadow Ministers, to do their most important job right and scrutinise government policy.  That means power leaks away from democratic representatives as MPs fail to stand up to the European Union and judges feel the need to step in to make up for the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny.


At the elections for Speaker, going on as I write this post, the candidates seem to all agree that parliament needs greater powers to hold the executive for account.  That is clearly the case, but it seems unlikely that minor changes to how Parliament orders its business will do the trick.  Instead, politicians need to be taken out of the management of public services.  Then they would have fewer distractions from their vital job of ensuring that we get the right policies in place.  There might be fewer initiatives that either dissapear as they are too irrelevant or are reversed as they are too disastrous.

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