A lot of people bandy around the expression “I’m a Libertarian,” many of them UKIP members. While the party does not formally declare itself as libertarian, much of its policy thrust is in that direction. However, I would suggest the party is wise not to formally use the libertarian label for itself, as there are two problems with the word: a lot of voters don’t understand what it really means, and those that do will argue till the cows come home exactly what being libertarian means.
Let’s try and examine that issue around the topics of booze, fags (cigarettes for our American readers), drugs and grub. For the most part, if consumed too liberally, these are potentially harmful to your health and have the potential to kill you, they can cause the state to pick up enormous medical bills on your behalf (in the UK anyway, with the NHS) and some have negative social effects (unruly and violent drunks, smoke-filled rooms, exploding fat people and drug-crazed nutters). Most of them, for those who enjoy using them, produce rather pleasant side effects too. In the case of food it is essential for survival.
Of course, there are some rather fortunate people who possess the ” – they can abuse their body almost any way they like, and they still live to a ripe old age. But let’s leave that anomaly to one side for now.
So, a state has a number of choices in the matter of dealing with the effects of said substances:
- Pick up the enormous medical bills caused by them.
- Tell people who chose to consume too much of them to go solve their own problems.
- Tax the offending items to high heaven.
- Make them illegal, or severely restrict their sale.
So, where does the libertarian in government sit in terms of making these choices?
The first one is the politically easy default, certainly in Europe. Nanny state sees its role to save its citizens from themselves, but won’t ban the items outright, fearing they’ll lose votes. So, the state unquestioningly picks up the bills associated with alcoholism, lung cancer, obesity and the varying issues caused by use of illegal drugs. As a sub-option the state may deploy massive advertising and education programmes to try and convince some to moderate for themselves. Will the libertarian take this approach? Not if they also want to reduce the size of the state, and do away with the nanny aspect of it.
The second option is appealing to the libertarian. If you become obese, say, just refuse to provide sufferers with free hip replacements, motorised wheelchairs and triple by-passes – the American option. This one is tricky. Proving that a particular substance has been the definitive cause of a particular ailment in a specific person is not a fool-proof exercise. When there are arguments about gene-based obesity problems, where will it all end – The High Court? Even worse, the European Court of Human Rights?
Taxing said items seems to be a pretty attractive number for most governments. Up to a certain level, there is the positive aspect of enhanced revenue, and the self-satisfied feeling by politicians that “they are doing something about the problem”. But, to see the extreme of this, we only need look at Scandinavia – strong alcohol (wine and higher) is only available from state-run shops at extortionate prices – £35 for a 700ml bottle of spirits – and a drink in a bar is around £10. What’s been the effect of this? Well, a lot of people who were moderate drinkers have just stopped drinking, and the alcoholics are poorer, many turning to crime as drugs users often do.
If we try to tax harmful food, what constituent of it causes obesity? There has been talk of a sugar tax, but we all need sugar, but to varying degrees. In fact our bodies need everything: carbohydrates, fat, protein, sugars, vitamins, minerals – we just need them in the right balance. Taxing food, certainly, and even heavily taxing the other substances, is not a libertarian solution then!
The final, nuclear, option is almost universally applied to drugs: all kinds of drugs from Class B items such as marijuana and cannabis, through to things like Class A cocaine. A few brave countries have de-criminalised some Class B drugs, but very few dare, fearing a voter backlash. But, there are two fundamental problems with making a substance illegal:
- It drives the problem underground, the much desired substance is supplied on the black market, under criminal control.
- Some of the other more “socially acceptable” substances may actually harm people more than the one made illegal – there are strong arguments that show the effects of smoking, alcoholism and obesity cost the state far more than drug problems do.
Of course, making something illegal that does not directly harm others is an anathema to a libertarian, so this one is non-starter for them too. However, de-criminalising drugs – is than a step too far, in electoral terms?
The whole thing is a minefield, especially for the libertarian. No wonder UKIP has stepped back from the brink, and wisely so. There are a lot more problems with our nation that need solving first (our sovereignty and the economy for a start) before UKIP can even think about libertarian issues.