Public Health Watch

Are the UK government’s new alcohol guidelines an assault on freedom? Just ask John Stuart Mill

The Victorian reformer was something of an expert on the "nanny state".

New guidelines on the consumption of alcohol have been announced by the British government. These recommend no more than 14 units a week, adding that there should be some drink-free days each week, and stressing that there are no safe levels of alcohol consumption.

While health campaigners have welcomed this move, others have described this as “nanny state” interference, or hyperbolic and puritan, with Nigel Farage advocating mass protest.

When the state seeks to direct us for our own good, it treats us as if we are children, unable to take responsibility for our own lives. This is what many find objectionable.

Inform, don’t restrict

Objections to the “nanny state” have a long history. The Victorian social reformer and MP John Stuart Mill argued, in 1859, that the only legitimate purpose for restricting a person’s freedom is to prevent harm to others. Mill’s insistence that people should not be restricted for their own benefit was influential in bringing about many social changes, such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

But not all state interference is objectionable, as Mill recognised. We should distinguish between cases where the state compels us to behave in a particular way (for example, by banning unhealthy substances) and cases where it offers advice or information. If the state were to prohibit alcohol, as some have tried to do in the past, this would deprive people of the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to drink. A similar objection might be made against minimum pricing, since it makes alcohol less affordable.

On the other hand, to warn citizens of danger, without preventing them from exposing themselves to it, does not threaten their freedom. In fact, being aware of the health risks associated with alcohol is a precondition for making an informed choice. If people were unaware of such risks, they could not decide for themselves whether the pleasures of alcohol were worth the danger. So, for people to exercise control over their own lives requires that they are informed about the options open to them.

Since the government’s guidelines are merely informative, rather than restrictive, they don’t restrict individual freedom. But there is one respect in which objectors may be right to criticise them. The guidelines do not simply impart information; they also recommend what level of risk people should be prepared to accept. The figure of 14 units was chosen, not because it is risk-free, but because this level of consumption is supposed to involve similar levels of risk to many other daily activities, such as driving.

This is ill-advised because competent adults should be able to decide for themselves what levels of risk to accept. Some of us actively seek out risks, while other are more cautious. The amount of risk that we’re willing to tolerate depends on both individual tastes and circumstances. It’s absurd to suggest that there’s a “one size fits all” answer to questions about how much risk we should accept and all the more absurd to think that the government can tell us what level this is.

Not much help

While people need to be told about the dangers of alcohol so that they can make responsible choices, the new guidelines aren’t of much help. The 14 units a week recommendation doesn’t tell us how much more risky 14 units a week is than seven, nor how much safer it is than 21, so it’s little help to anyone deciding what risk is acceptable to them.

A more liberal set of guidelines might compare the risks associated with various levels of consumption to the risks of other daily activities. This would give citizens a better idea of how risky different patterns of consumption are, allowing us to choose how much risk we wish to face.

Such potential guidelines could respect both the need for citizens to be informed and the right of each person to make decisions over his or her own life, including decisions about what risks to take. The government’s actual guidelines are to be applauded, to the extent that they simply educate people about the dangers of alcohol, but objectionable in seeking to decide for us how much risk we should face.

Ben Saunders, Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Political Philosophy, University of Southampton.

This article was first published on The Conversation.

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