Wednesday, August 17, 2005

24 hour drinking

I have been listening to debate on this for a while now and decided to put forward my own views. Then Sean Gabb beat me to it with a piece from his free life commentary that says it so much more eloquently, coherently and forcefully than I ever could have. Whilst I'm not in the habit of regurgitating or me-too-ing posts, on this occasion I reproduce it below...

The Reform of Alcohol Licensing in England:
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
by Sean Gabb

Next Monday, the 22nd August 2005, I have been booked to
go to Birmingham for a television debate in which I shall
put the case for there being no restriction on the hours
during which alcohol can be sold in this country. As is
always the case, I have no idea how long I shall have to
make my case, nor what points I shall be able to raise. So
I will now write out in brief what I regard as a
libertarian response to the Licensing Act 2003.

Before the 20th century, there were no restrictions on
when and for how long public houses could open in England.
Anyone who wanted to sell wine and spirits had to obtain a
licence from the local magistrates. The Beer Act 1830,
however, effectively deregulated the sale of beer, ale and
cider. Anyone who could pay two guineas (£2 2s) could as
of right buy a licence; and this fee was later abolished.
Restrictions began with the Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869,
and were strengthened by the Intoxicating Liquor
(Licensing) Act 1872, and by the Licensing Acts 1902 and
1904. These gave magistrates much greater control over the
number of licenses granted and over the conduct of
licensed premises.

Controls on how long public houses could open were
introduced during the Great War under the Defence of the
Realm Act. It was claimed that the working classes were
spending too much of their overtime pay on drink, and that
restriction was needed for the sake of "national
efficiency". Drinking hours were limited to 12pm to 2:30pm
and from 6:30pm to 9:30pm. This limitation was kept in
place after the War, and, with a few relaxations, has
continued to the present.

One of the stated aims of the Licensing Act 2003 is to
allow public houses - if their owners wish - to remain
open all day and all night, or for any shorter period.
Though the Act was passed in 2003, some of its provisions
have yet to be put into effect, and the reform of opening
hours will come into effect next October. It is this
potentially unlimited extension of opening hours that has
been the most controversial feature of the Act, and is the
feature that I shall be discussing next week.

Now, on libertarian grounds, any relaxation of opening
hours is to be welcomed. It is not the business of the
State to tell consenting adults where, how and when they
should enjoy themselves. If someone wants to walk into a
supermarket at three in the morning to buy a bottle of
wine, or to go into a bar and buy a pint of beer, that
should be his unquestioned right. To deny this right is an
act of petty tyranny.

Of course, there may be attendant circumstances to the
exercise of a right that compel some limitation. But these
attendant circumstances are always fewer than is claimed.
And where the sale of alcohol is concerned, there are none
whatever. Consider:

First, it is claimed that if people can buy alcohol at any
time of day, there will be more drinking. This is true.
But so what? If people choose to drink themselves
paralytic, that is their problem. No doubt, excessive
drinking is bad for the health. Again, so what? As said,
it is not the business of the State to tell people how to
live - that business is to protect life and property from
attack and to defend the realm. It does not include
protecting people from their own weakness or stupidity.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the only barrier to mass
drunkenness is the limitation of opening hours. Anyone who
claims otherwise will have to work hard to justify his
belief in universal adult suffrage.

Second, it is claimed that if people are drunk more often,
there will be more public drunkenness and disorder, and
that this is a matter affecting third parties. This is a
false argument. Most disorder related to drink is caused
by the fact that the public houses all close at the same
time, and throw all their drinkers out into the streets.
If they could close at different times, or not at all,
there might not be any great increase in the total amount
of public drunkenness. But that drunkenness would be more
evenly distributed, and less likely to result in disorder.
Even otherwise, it is both stupid and dangerous to try
preventing crimes by trying to regulate the states of mind
in which they are committed. We need effective punishments
for attacks on life and property and violations of the
public order - punishments that take drunkenness into
account as a severe aggravating factor. Make the
punishments heavy enough, and even the most inebriated
will be more inclined to creep home than to pull out a

Third, it is claimed that even private drunkenness
adversely affects the interests of third parties. For
example, a married man who drinks all day is hurting his
wife and any children. This is true. But such harm does
not fall into the category of evils that the State is
entitled to prevent. To say otherwise is to grant a
principle under which a man could be prevented from
leaving a well-paid job to start his own business: after
all, that might put his dependants into just as much want
as if he were to keep his job but drink away the salary.

Fourth, it is claimed that people who drink excessively
place a greater burden on the National Health Service, and
that is the right of other taxpayers to ensure that this
burden is minimised. This is one of those claims that is
made again and again in radio studios, regardless of how
often it has already been answered. I doubt if it is a
claim ever made nowadays in good faith. Look at the main
heads of the answers. First, let us take the - probably
inflated - costing made by the Institute of Alcohol
Studies (,
that the health-related cost of excessive drinking is
£1.6bn. Balance against this the £12bn in taxes collected
on alcohol every year, and we see that drinkers more than
pay for any increased burden they place on the National
Health Service. Second, if we accept that lifestyle may be
regulated for the sake of reducing the health budget, why
not ban homosexual acts and rugby and eating Indian food?
These are all associated with illnesses that are expensive
to treat. Third, if the answer to this is yes, it would be
better to abolish the National Health Service. It was set
up, after all, supposedly to keep us healthy - not to make
us into slaves.

Therefore, the arguments against the principle of longer
opening hours fail. Though I am not myself much of a
drinker, I want to live in a country where adults can go
lawfully into a kebab shop at any time of day and by an
untaxed bottle of gin. As Dr Magee, the Bishop of
Peterborough, said in the debates over the 1872 Licensing
Act said, "England free better than England sober".

Sadly, in spite of its stated aim, the present Licensing
Act is unlikely to take us practically towards such a
world. One of its provisions transfers the granting of
licences from magistrates to elected councillors. These
are more likely to be pressured by the health fascists,
and so the effect of the law may be more to limit opening
hours than to relax them.

Then there is the increased complexity of the licensing
system. The cost of getting a licence has risen, and there
has been a great increase in the paperwork needed. The
process of applying for conversion and variation of
existing licences was supposed to be straightforward.
However the Government did not publish the forms until the
last minute and then redesigned them. The guidance notes
accompanying them are ambiguous, and no guidance has been
issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on
its website.

Not surprisingly, few present licence holders have applied
for renewal within the time required, and we face either a
further delay in bringing the relevant provision into
effect or the closure of thousands of public houses next

No one should be surprised by the probable effect of the
new law. The function of government in New Labour Britain
has moved decisively from providing common services to
providing jobs, income and status for those in the
Establishment and for their various clients. The greater
complexity introduced by the present Licensing Act is not
a sign of government incompetence. Rather, so far as is
opens up new excuses for the employment of officials, and
creates advantage for those businesses big enough to buy
their way through the regulations, it is a notable success.

But this takes me beyond my present intention, which is to
defend the principle of unlimited opening hours for pubic

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