In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated an unsuccessful anti-alcohol campaign in the Soviet Union. According to William Taubman, Gorbachev’s biographer, the campaign followed a high-level Politburo report that expressed concern about the negative effects of excessive drinking in the Soviet Union. Annually, there are 12 million drunk driving arrests, 13,000 attributed rapes, and 29,000 robberies. Crime declined and life expectancy increased as a result of the anti-alcohol campaign’s impact on public health. However, the campaign was a political and financial failure.
Gorbachev forgot that the state’s dependence on alcohol revenue was even more incurable than the alcoholism of some citizens. The fiscal deficits precipitated an economic crisis. Historians suspect that this campaign delegitimized Gorbachev more than the fall of the Soviet Union. An old Soviet joke stated that a disgruntled and enraged citizen, tired of waiting in line for vodka, decided to assassinate Gorbachev. The lines to assassinate Gorbachev were even longer than the lines for vodka, he reported upon his return.
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As the lockdown in India was lifted and social distance was eroded at alcohol outlets, we were reminded of how difficult it is to rationally discuss alcohol in India. The stampede was caused by the incompetence with which most cities handled the opening. If you open after forty days and are uncertain about future closings, a stampede will ensue. However, this topic has been a political hot potato that we avoid. Similar to Russia, it is difficult to wean many states from alcohol’s political economy. It lubricates not only the state coffers but also the entire political apparatus. There is also the fear that merely discussing this topic is a slippery slope to prohibition, and that recognizing the problem will legitimize state repression. Alcohol has also shifted from a question of personal freedom and preference to an issue in larger cultural wars, a peculiar metric for measuring progressivism in India. It is also a window into the misinterpretation of liberalism.
On both moral and practical grounds, liberals should be suspicious of prohibition. Government grossly exceeds its authorized authority when it interferes with the rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit and to fashion themselves according to their own ideals, interests, and preferences. Moreover, moralizing or puritanism regarding alcohol cannot serve as the basis for state policy. This moralism has no foundation and violates the freedom and dignity of individuals.
However, this is one of the paradoxes of liberalism. For liberal freedoms to flourish, society needs more self-control and discernment, not less. The government should not interfere with any form of free speech. However, freedom of expression will perish or be rendered relatively meaningless if social norms that flourish under this freedom use it as a cover for hatred or subjugation of others. The state should not intervene in sexual or intimate matters. However, if sexual expressions are consistently degrading or violent, as we have seen in locker room scandals, norms of freedom will incur significant costs and perish. The state should not interfere with people’s right to consume alcohol; however, there will be a backlash if drinking results in significant social harm. Defining the limits of state power is the intellectually simpler aspect of liberalism, as every genuine liberal has always recognized. The more difficult question is how to create subjects who comprehend both liberty and moderation. Both are interdependent.
India’s elites display a peculiar reluctance to accept that the following statements cannot all be true simultaneously. There is no justification for the government to prohibit alcohol consumption. This option should be maintained. However, drinking’s manifestations pose a significant social problem. According to the WHO, 5.3% of deaths worldwide are attributable to alcohol, and this rises to 13% for those aged 20 to 39. Globally, the evidence regarding the association between alcohol and sexual and intimate partner violence is overwhelming. To gauge the scope of the problem, you need only peruse the papers from any research center on the topic, from La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Taking arbitrary examples: Ingrid Wilson and Angela Taft of La Trobe University estimated that alcohol is a factor in 50% of sexual assaults and 73% of intimate partner assaults in Australia. This number is fairly representative of the majority of nations. According to numerous studies, alcohol is responsible for at least fifty percent of campus assaults. Even if we disagree with their solution, the women in Bihar who favor prohibition have a deeper understanding of the underlying social sciences.
In many elite contexts, alcohol consumption is not about individual choice. Alcohol is almost an ideology, with its own brand of messianism. The majority of my non-drinking friends who have traveled abroad concur that it was much simpler to navigate social situations in the United States than in a city like Delhi, where drinking has become a marker of progressivism and non-drinking of reaction. Among young people, membership is frequently presented as a requirement rather than a choice. Moreover, there is something peculiar about transforming alcohol into an ideology.
Some conservatives do so by moralizing on the subject of alcohol. But progressive elites are even more deceitful in this regard. On the one hand, we value consent, choice, and agency appropriately. On the other hand, there is little concern regarding the forms of alcoholism that, in critical situations, impede our ability to exercise or recognize consent, make good decisions, or act as agents. In reality, the liberal argument for encouraging moderation is stronger than the conservative argument.
None of these points support prohibition. Quite the opposite. As Yogendra Yadav noted, however, we should think more soberly (no pun intended) about policy measures that reduce the harm and ideological valorisation of alcohol: education on intelligent drinking, community intervention, regulating outlet density of alcohol shops, greater control over surrogate advertising, and a more frank social conversation that there is a problem. Good liberals must defend the right to choose. But if we truly value liberty, we must also question our own addiction to the cultural and political economy of alcohol and find intelligent ways to circumvent a complicated problem.
This article first appeared in the May 7 issue of the print edition with the title Drink for thought. The author serves as a contributing editor for The Indian Express.
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PB Mehta writes: There is very little worry about the forms of dependence on alcohol that, in crucial moments, take away our ability to exercise or recognise consent, exercise good choice or act like an agent. The liberal case for encouraging moderation is actually stronger than the conservative case.