Vice Squad
Saturday, November 15, 2003
 
Adam Smith on Alcohol


Vice Squad has to prepare a paper for a conference next week; while
the paper has nothing to do with vice, it does have to do with
that ever-popular of moral philosophers, Adam Smith. So this time-out
from paper writing tonight elicits a post on Adam Smith's views on
alcohol policy.

In the Wealth of Nations, Smith argues for trade in alcoholic beverages
to be as free as trade in other commodities, although the purchase of
ale by workmen is "somewhat more liable to be abused" than trade in
other goods. He continues "Though individuals...may sometimes
ruin their fortunes by an excessive consumption of fermented liquors,
there seems to be no risk that a nation should do so." Further, "if
we consult experience, the cheapness of wine seems to be a cause, not
of drunkenness, but of sobriety." There is a transition problem,
however. Were you to introduce cheaper alcohol by eliminating taxes,
you might, "occasion in Great Britain a pretty general and temporary
drunkenness among the middling and inferior ranks of people, which
would probably soon be followed by a permanent and almost universal
sobriety."

Smith was no Puritan. In discussing beer taxes (according to
student notes that were later published as Lectures on
Jurisprudence
), Smith noted that "Man is an anxious animal and
must have his care swept off by something that can exhilarate
the senses." Nevertheless, between the first and second
editions of the Wealth of Nations (with its famous butcher, brewer,
and baker), Smith deleted a reference to beer as a necessity of life!

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