Libertarianism is fine... for single middle-aged men Aghast at the amateur drinker with no licence to swill

Political Commentary
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THIS is the time of year when the experienced drinker keeps out of licensed premises if he or she can. It is difficult to get a drink and impossible to enjoy it once it has been secured, for the pubs are full of boisterous young men and nauseous young women. "Do you know what she's had today?" the companion of one of them will confide as she retires to the ladies' lavatory to be horribly sick. "Four gin-and-tonics, two large sherries, a Creme de Menthe and a half of Guinness. We tried a port- and-brandy to settle her stomach, like, but it didn't seem to do the trick."

One's heart goes out to the poor girl. It is not right. It should be stopped. The hardiest inhabitant of Old Fleet Street would be sick too, after a mixture of that kind. And she is not only hurting herself and inconveniencing her immediate circle, who have to pour her into a taxi (if the driver will take her, for taxi-drivers are reluctant to carry people who look as if they may be sick). She is also being a menace to other people.

Her male companions are an even greater danger. For not only are they liable to be sick too. They are also prone to jeer at persons who are not of their group. Any response in kind is then met with the threat of violence or even with violence itself.

This cheerful seasonal sketch is meant to illustrate the truth that the consumption of strong drink is not a purely personal matter. It usually has effects on other people. Indeed, most libertarian theories are based on the assumption that civil society is composed of middle-aged males with no family responsibilities or ties, in good health and with secure incomes.

This assumption is clearly false. Not only do people's actions affect others. Most people - all children, most women and many men - depend on someone else. The libertarian fallacy is to refuse to recognise this obvious truth.

The interventionist or paternalist fallacy is, however, to draw the conclusion that the state must always use its coercive powers or its persuasive authority to modify this situation. It is a conclusion which is accepted not only by newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent, and programmes such as Newsnight and Today, but also by the entire government machine, not merely the Department of Health.

The economic liberalism which was inaugurated by Lady Thatcher and has under Mr John Major reached lunatic proportions - as witnessed by the selling-off of Her Majesty's Stationery Office - finds no counterpart in social liberalism. Lady Thatcher was herself a tremendous bossyboots. In the last 15 years, under successive Conservative governments, the state has become more rather than less interventionist.

But this interventionism is highly selective. Of course, drink can destroy individuals or break up families. But then, so can the institution of property. The more owner-occupation spreads and inheritance tax diminishes, the greater the likelihood of the kind of family quarrel which has long been familiar in rural Wales and provincial France. No one maintains that this incidental effect renders the spread of ownership malign.

Families can also be broken up, and individuals destroyed, by adultery. The last person, as far as I can remember, who suggested that adultery should be made illegal was Geoffrey Fisher when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Highly tentative his suggestion was too. This did not prevent the Daily Express from leading the paper with a story headlined "Adultery - by the Archbishop."

Not only is there, quite rightly, no suggestion that adultery should be made illegal. Society encourages sexual intercourse generally. Certainly the Department of Health's attitude, inasmuch as one can make it out, is that Sex is Good For You, provided the proper protective measures are taken. However, Smoking is Bad For You. And Drinking is Somewhere-in-Between but veering towards the Bad.

The question which puzzles me is why a government department should feel it necessary to maintain a public position on any of these matters. It is not, as I have tried to explain, that they are purely personal or private: for even smoking can have an effect both on the lifespan of a wage-earner and on the budget of a family. It is that, though other people may be affected, the state is not thereby provided with any general warrant to throw its weight about.

With drink, there are considerations of practice as well as of principle. For the medical profession is as fickle here as it is in other areas of human experience. Last week Mr Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary for Health, increased the "safe" limit from 21 and 15 units for men and women respectively to 28 and 21. Few of the medical correspondents who were covering the story pointed out that the number of "safe" units (dread word! as Mr Wallace Arnold would say) had been restored to precisely what they had been before. No correspondent at all that I read seemed to remember that the limits before the original 28 and 21 were eight units a day for men and five for women. I know about the ignorance of history that most young people now demonstrate, but this was ridiculous! The more generous limits were being recommended only a few years ago. For some reason they were rarely put in weekly form, perhaps because 56 or 35 units seemed distinctly on the generous side.

At that time, it was said that there were eight units - or eight glasses - in a bottle of wine. One could only assume that Mr Kenneth Clarke's bottles were litre-size (for it was he who was at Health at the time), or that his glasses were very small, or that he was in the habit of filling them only a third full, as they do at the grandest French restaurants. I struggle to get six glasses out of a bottle, and find between four and five normal.

No matter. The reduction from 56 and 35 to 21 and 15 for men and women respectively - the latter the officially recommended measures until last week's increase - certainly requires some explanation by Mr Dorrell. It would be interesting to know how these recommendations are arrived at, even though they are none of his or his department's business.

Nevertheless, there is one piece of paternalist legislation which the politicians could properly introduce. They should make it unlawful, in the last two weeks of December and up to 2 January, for a landlord to sell alcoholic drink to anyone who did not hold a drinker's licence. This would be obtainable from any qualified pharmacist (a group which should, by the way, take over most of the present functions of the medical profession). It would require the production of a satisfactory drinking record and the payment of a fee which would go to the Treasury. Young women under 21 would be automatically excluded; while young men of the same age would have to convince the chemist that they were responsible and experienced drinkers. That would do something to clear up the mess in the streets of our great cities and towns at this time of the year.