Neo-Prohibition Isn’t The Answer To Violent Crime

It wouldn’t be a moral panic without demands that the government do something.

And so it is with the alcohol-fuelled violence panic that swept New South Wales over the Christmas break.

Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute made a few proposals in the Sydney Morning Herald here. Governments could increase alcohol prices by increase taxes or imposing a minimum price. They could restrict pub opening hours. They could even set a maximum blood alcohol level for people in public places.

Such proposals are more or less the sort of neo-prohibition public health activists have wanted for years.

Today Barry O’Farrell announced a crackdown on alcohol venues, with mandatory bottleshop closures at 10:00pm, a 1:30am pub lock-out, and no pub service after 3:00am.

Let’s lay aside whether it is fair to restrict the liberties of all because of the idiocy of a few. It is utterly and despicably perverse that our immediate reaction to a highly publicised violent assault is to blame public policy, or market forces, or “culture” in general.

It’s classic guilt displacement, shifting the responsibility from the perpetrators of violence and onto society. That is, it’s not totally their fault they were violent. Alcohol vendors were plying them with liquor! Lazy politicians were neglecting their regulatory duties! Music videos have been glorifying drinking!

What does this imply for the moral responsibility of the perpetrators? After all, to punish somebody for an act they had little control over would be a travesty of justice.

Perhaps the number of bottleshops in a suburb should be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Of course, none of our latter-day prohibitionists have taken their logic this far. But such perverse reasoning is implicit when we seek social explanations for individual criminal acts.

The perversity increases when you realise that there is no alcohol-fuelled violence crisis. The rate of violence related to alcohol is stable, even declining. (This piece in the Guardian sums up the evidence for New South Wales nicely.)

Our alcohol consumption is steady, too. Australia’s per capita alcohol consumption has been hovering around 10 litres a year for the last few decades. (In the 1970s it was more like 12 litres.)

But regardless of whether it is trending up or trending down, it remains the case that the Australian public consumes a large quantity of alcohol, and gets into very few fights.

There are, as there have always been, brutal thugs who take pleasure from violence. The correct – and most direct – response is to target the thugs, not to fiddle with tax policy.

The relationship between alcohol and violence is not as clear cut as you might expect. Yes, much violent crime is caused by intoxicated people. The doctors and police are right. But figuring out whether alcohol actually causes the violence is quite hard.

Correlation, as we all know, is not causation.

The most common theory is that alcohol lowers inhibitions. It directly anesthetises the parts of the brain that we use to regulate our everyday behaviour. Alcohol changes us physically, and in a way that makes some people more aggressive.

From experiments in laboratory settings we know that people who consume alcohol exhibit more aggressive behaviour.

But the inhibition theory is not the only theory which could explain this.

Some experiments have shown that people tend to get more aggressive even when given a placebo. That is, when they are told they are going to have an alcoholic drink, but are secretly given a non-alcoholic tonic, they get aggressive anyway. Thus the ‘expectations’ theory suggests people get more aggressive when intoxicated simply because they expect to get more aggressive when intoxicated. They think aggression is more socially acceptable in a drunk.

There are other theories. The connection between alcohol and violence could be indirect. Intoxication reduces intellectual function, causing us to exaggerate provocation and to needlessly provoke others.

But these theories only take us so far. It’s one thing to show in a lab that people who believe they are intoxicated people are marginally more aggressive than those who are sober. It’s quite another to draw policy conclusions from that finding.

The overwhelming majority of people drink without getting violent. (Some people just get more helpful.) In the real world, humans are able to regulate their behaviour even while intoxicated. Even if alcohol ’causes’ violence, it only causes it rarely, and in a tiny fraction of people.

Even drunk people make choices. Even drunk people can be moral. We are not machines. Public policy ought not to treat us like machines.

The more policy-focused researchers try to side-step this issue with macro-level studies that look at correlations between alcohol consumption in an area and incidents of violence.

That’s where we get the claims that bottleshop density facilitates violence, for instance.

But these studies often struggle to distinguish between other factors. The essential feature of bars and pubs and nightclubs and bottleshops isn’t that they sell alcohol. It’s that they bring large groups of young men together in close proximity.

Ultimately, the neurological, psychological, and sociological evidence about the relationship between alcohol and violence isn’t strong enough to get us away from a simple intuition: violent acts are caused by violent people, regardless of their level of intoxication.

As one paper from 2008 concludes, “alcohol may facilitate violent behavior among those who are already inclined to behave that way. It is also possible that violent adolescents sometimes use alcohol as an excuse for their behavior.”

So the idea that we would be trying to blur the responsibility of violent offenders with alcohol regulation is utterly, utterly repugnant.

It’s exactly what the thugs, and their lawyers, want us to do.