England Goes to War Over Wine

Posted: Jun 09, 2007 12:01 AM
England Goes to War Over Wine

The British government recently unveiled plans for a massive crackdown on "excessive drinking," particularly among the middle class. It will includeall of the familiar tactics of public health officials: dire new warnings onwine bottles, public awareness campaigns, scolding from men and women in labcoats.

But the public response has been a bit more strident than what we're used toover here. Boris Johnson, a member of Parliament and a conservativejournalist, writes in The Telegraph: "I am told that the drinks industry isin two minds. Some say capitulate and agree to the 'voluntary' code; somesay fight and force (the government) to try to bring forward legislation. Isay fight, fight, fight. Fight against these insulting, ugly and otioselabels."

Sarah Vine, writing in The Times, is even more passionate, decrying a:

"... pernicious new Puritanism that is slowly squeezing the life and soulout of Britain. Ye gods, as my grandmother used to say, almost all themiddle classes have left is their glass of wine in the evening. ... Becauselet's face it, this Government is doing its best to make our lives about asmiserable as any pox-raddled Hogarthian whore's. Utter the word Œmiddleclass' in Whitehall and watch their greedy little pimps' eyes light up withpound signs. Behold the British middle-classes - a docile, law-abiding armyof tax slaves. Hurrah, let's blow it all on some more social workers inNewcastle."

As blessedly entertaining as all this is, some might wonder why the Britsare so exercised about a bunch of warning labels. After all, politicalcorrectness has been worse over there for quite a while. Police have beenknown to arrest school kids for insulting their friends. All of England ispreparing for a smoking ban that will include "smoking police" making raidson establishments violating the law. The streets of Old Blighty arefestooned with hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit television cameras.And, whereas once these cameras were used for anti-terrorism, police in somejurisdictions have actually outfitted them with loudspeakers so they can,like the voice of God, tell pedestrians to pick up their litter andgenerally behave like good "tax slaves." You'd think warning labels on vinowould seem as uncontroversial as adding green vegetables to the prisoncafeteria menu.

One answer might be that this is merely the straw that breaks the camel'salready strained back. Another might be rage at a late hit from the exitinggovernment of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Another might be that theBrits can take "nanny state" intrusions in the name of law and order, but ifyou go after their booze, it's time for a glorious revolution. Yet anothermight be that Britain's underclass seems increasingly unredeemable, andrather than give up on it, the government feels the need to ratchet up theinfantilization of the many in order to fix the few.

All of these, and many other interpretations, have merit. But there'sanother explanation with some salience for Americans bemusedly - orenviously - watching Britain turn into a penal colony with whacky TV and aline of heredity wardens called monarchs.

Britain still subscribes to a system where health care is for the most partsocialized. When the bureaucrat-priesthood of the National Health Servicedecides that a certain behavior is unacceptable, the consequencespotentially involve more than scolding. For example, in 2005, Britain'shealth service started refusing certain surgeries for fat people. Anofficial behind the decision conceded that one of the considerations wascost. Fat people would benefit from the surgery less, and so they deservedit less. As Tony Harrison, a British health-care expert, explained to theToronto Sun at the time, "Rationing is a reality when funding is limited."

But it's impossible to distinguish such cost-cutting judgments from moralones. The reasoning is obvious: Fat people, smokers and - soon - drinkersdeserve less health care because they bring their problems on themselves. Inshort, they deserve it. This is a perfectly logical perspective, and if Iwere in charge of everybody's health care, I would probably resort tosimilar logic.

But I'm not in charge of everybody's health care. Nor should anyone else be.In a free market system, bad behavior will still have high costs personallyand financially, but those costs are more likely to borne by you and youalone. The more you socialize the costs of personal liberty, the morelicense you give others to regulate it.

Universal health care, once again all the rage in the United States, is aninvitation for scolds to become nannies. I think many Brits understand thisall too well, which is one reason why they want to fight the scolds here andnow.