Urgently needed: innovation in British politics

In striving to remedy social ills, politicians are guilty of compounding our problems by taxing and prohibiting. Enough is enough; it is time for innovation in political thinking.

The glass appears half empty for the tax payer
Donna Rachel Edmunds
On 30 August 2011 13:41

The rustic idyll (or possibly DIY hell) that is a British bank holiday has passed and normal life resumes, bringing with it yet another suggestion that a social ill can be cured by raising taxes.

This time, it's the Liberal Democrats musing on plans that would see local councils being permitted to raise a local tax on alcohol with a 'per-drink surcharge' above the rate of duty to pay for 'the costs of binge drinking'. The details of the proposed measures are as yet unclear - they'll be discussing it at their conference in a few weeks time - but could, for example, entail local councils adding five pence to the cost of a pint or glass of wine to pay for extra policing or hospital treatment for binge drinkers.

There appears to be a trend in politics at the moment for a complete lack of innovation. There are just three possible answers to almost any problem that befalls society: a) raise taxes on offending product; b) spend more money on failing service; and c) enact more authoritarian legislature in order to prohibit offending behaviour. Never mind that these answers tackle the symptom, not the cause; never mind that they have been tried and tested and shown not to work. Still they are wheeled out daily by either a political party or an 'interest' group, or occasionally both together.

We are in an age of puritanism. A war is being waged on individuals' freedoms. In the front line trenches is tobacco, with a flurry of tax raises (now at 77-90 percent of the cost of the product), bans on smoking, proposals for plain packaging and bans on displays all taking their toll. The outcome, however, has not been a cessation of smoking but merely a burgeoning illicit trade, worth some £4 billion in lost revenue to the treasury at it's height in 2000/1. Alcohol, gambling and fast food are increasingly seen as major strategic targets with similar proposals levied on them.

Alcohol duty now sits at about £1 a pint, or a third of the price of the drink. Like the duties on tobacco, the  tax hikes predominantly affect responsible members of society who engage in socially acceptable, legitimate business transactions. In other words, by people who are just having a quiet few drinks at their local. As prices rise, the publicans, who are running legitimate, socially acceptable businesses, loose out in terms of revenue. Up and down the country, villages are losing their local pub, often a traditional focal point for village life.

Meanwhile binge drinking continues, as citizens who wish to consume large quantities of cheap alcohol for whatever reason will merely buy it elsewhere such as in the supermarkets or eventually, if prices continue to rise, on the black market. And so the 'costs' of their antisocial behaviour will not be borne by them at all. If anything, the situation is merely exacerbated as they are driven out of pubs and onto the streets.

It's time for this country to stand up and say: enough is enough. Authoritarian, restrictive measures do not work. To the contrary, our problems are not going away but are being compounded as we tax more and prohibit more. It is time for innovation in political thinking. It is time to start tackling the causes - including high taxes and a welfare state - of our social ills, not the symptoms.

Donna Edmunds is Director of Research at Progressive Vision (@ProgVis), a libertarian think-tank. She tweets at @DonnaInSussex 

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