Governments love to spoil a good time. I know, this sounds like the philosophy of a rebellious teenager. But it’s absolutely true, and especially so in the UK. Just look at our track record: Scotland has a minimum price regulation on alcohol. British taxes on cigarettes are far higher than those of our European neighbours. Cannabis is classed alongside ketamine and amphetamines. The state clearly takes great pleasure in banning, taxing, or otherwise regulating our vices.
To many, this may seem like a non-issue; who cares if the state is controlling the stuff that can kill you? Don’t we want to get people off of drugs and booze? Well, yes. We do. But state control is not the way to do it.
This is because people don’t respond to state measures in the way you’d expect. Much of the vices targeted by ‘sin taxes’ or regulations are enjoyed disproportionately by those from lower-income families. Take, for instance, Scotland’s price floor on alcohol, which is designed to deter alcoholism by restricting the supply of cheap, strong booze. Logically, this might hold up rather well at first glance; poorer drinkers should be dissuaded by higher prices, right?
Wrong. A heavy drinker will continue to purchase their tipple pretty much regardless of price changes. This is actually measurable through an economic phenomenon known as price elasticity of, which can be used to gauge how responsive a consumer will be to a change in price. The elasticity of alcohol shows us that for every 1% increase in price, consumption will drop by a measly 0.28%. Nowhere near high enough to significantly impact drinking rates.
Worse still is the situation for the majority who will continue to drink through the price floor; they will have to pay far, far more for their drinks than before. Considering that it is low-income people who are targeted here, they really don’t have any room to tighten their budgets further in this way.
So, the Scottish government set out to help ease the drinking problem, and has wound up endangering the wallets of the most vulnerable class. Truly the epitome of that old ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’ saying. Ultimately, this is always the case whenever the state tries to nanny it’s people. It hurts the very people it tries to protect.
Take a look at cannabis. Time and time again it has been demonstrated to be no more dangerous (in fact, far safer) than alcohol and tobacco. Yet being caught with cannabis brings legal risks of confiscation, fining, and even prison in some cases. In fact, drug offence make up the second most common reason for incarceration in the UK. All the costs of such large-scale imprisonment, both to the state and to the prisoners’ lives, exist simply because the state has decided to control the personal vice of taking drugs.
This is the crux of the issue: vices are choices. We, as individuals, have a right to make mistakes. We have a right to consume unhealthy food, to get drunk, to smoke, because our bodies belong to us and us alone. The decision to treat our bodies poorly is a transaction involving one person, and thus only requires the consent of the individual themself.
When the state criminalises a vice, either directly as with drugs, or implicitly as with alcohol, sugar, or tobacco, they are punishing individuals for an ultimately victimless crime. No other party but the consenting individual need be harmed, yet the state continues to punish those who choose to indulge in unhealthy ways.In doing so, they inflict far more harm than was previously present. Alcoholics have their pockets emptied by price floors and taxes. Cannabis smokers face the stigma of a criminal record. Does any of this really improve their situation?
The best way to protect those who enjoy dangerous vices is to leave them alone. They’re grown-ups who can make their own choices. Undermining their autonomy of self through criminalisation or regulation threatens to make their lives even worse, and infringes upon the fundamental right to one’s own body. Let people sin.