Saturday 2 September 2023

Minimally useful politician (MUP)


As we move into the autumn of the year many of us realise that we have almost certainly already lived more years than we have left. It isn’t a pleasant thought, so we try not to think about it. If you are forty-five you could easily have forty more years. You might even make it to a hundred if you are lucky. That’s a long time. Have another pint, have another glass of wine.

How many lives will Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) save? There were 1,276 deaths due to alcohol last year in Scotland. But neither MUP nor banning smoking in pubs, nor taxing sugary drinks, will save any lives at all. Every single person who died from alcohol, or from smoking or from being fat would have died anyway perhaps later perhaps not.  

When a baby is born it no longer faces the risk of childhood illness that the Victorians faced. There is a slight chance that it will die in an accident and this chance increases when it learns to drive. After that there is a sort of lottery until you retire. You might get some sort of cancer aged thirty. You might get some sort of unusual disease. You might drink huge amounts, smoke a lot or be very fat. If so, you might die early. But you might die early anyway. Lots of fit and apparently healthy people die in their forties or fifties for no obvious reason.

After retirement you might be so bored that you die quickly. Alternatively, if you give up drinking, keep fit every day and avoid all ultra processed foods you might live to be 95. But you equally might die aged 70.

No one questions that drinking too much, perhaps even drinking at all is bad for your health. Smoking is terrible for your health. Diet probably accounts more for longevity than anything else. A whole population will live longer and be healthier if it drinks moderately, doesn’t smoke and isn’t fat. But this doesn’t mean that you will live longer. It still remains a matter of chance. Even if you increase your odds by giving up everything unhealthy, you still might lose.

So, should we use pricing and various forms of prohibition to make people lead healthier lives? The SNP and other parties as well believe that Minimum Unit Pricing is justified because it will increase longevity. It also thinks that banning smoking from pubs and other indoor places and taxing cigarettes at a very high rate is justified. It also thinks that sugar should be taxed.

A strictly libertarian view would argue that all of these are unjustified. Tell people the truth about food, alcohol, smoking, and obesity, but don’t tax these products any more than anything else. There could be pubs for smokers and pubs for nonsmokers.

This view says so long as I don’t harm anyone else, I should be allowed to do what I please.

We must take into account the money spent on healthcare for those who choose to smoke, drink too much and be fat, but the cost of looking after these sinners will be less than the cost of looking after the healthy 95-year-old. People who die younger due to bad habits will require less pension and won’t need nursing care.

But the libertarian argument was lost decades ago. The issue is how far we want the Nanny State to go.

The problem particularly in Scotland is that the SNP is unwilling to be honest with voters about Minimum Unit Pricing or indeed about anything else.

It is obvious that MUP has not worked. The number of deaths due to alcohol are about the same as they were in 2008. Worse Scottish civil servants and SNP ministers have tried to manipulate the figures and the various studies to make it seem as if MUP has made a difference. There has been modelling to suggest that MUP might have saved some hypothetical lives. But we all know from the pandemic that modelling can be wildly wrong about reality.

If we cannot trust the SNP to be honest about MUP, how can we trust it to be honest about its own party’s finances, the reason why ferries have not been built yet, or indeed about independence.

In order to make informed choices about lifestyle we need to know honestly about alcohol, smoking, obesity and fitness. We also need to be honest about the limits to government intervention.

If the maximum libertarian argument has lost the maximum authoritarian argument has not even been discussed.

Scotland would undoubtedly be healthier if alcohol and cigarettes were banned, unhealthy food rationed, and everyone forced to do an hour of exercise a day with the obese being forced to lose weight.

If you really want to increase longevity you are going to have to make people, be slim and fit, just as you made them give up cigarettes. Nothing else will make a difference.

But the danger of this approach is that it absurdly contradicts the SNP’s present liberality about heroin use. We will end up in situation where heroin is subsidised on prescription and places made available for addicts to inject themselves, while the rest of us are unable legally to drink a glass of wine while smoking a cigarette and eating a scotch egg.

But in time as the illicit trade in beer wine, spirits, cigarettes and scotch eggs surpasses the illicit trade in heroin and dope, those of us who are victims of booze pushers will be given safe spaces to consume alcohol, cigarettes and scotch eggs. These could perhaps be called pubs.

The biggest problem with the SNP’s authoritarian public health agenda is that we give up so much only to gain so little.

Let’s say you give up smoking, drinking, ultra-processed foods and remain slim and fit. What do you get?

You end up aged 95 in a care home not knowing where you are, not knowing who you are, alone and made to sign a do not resuscitate order. At the least sign that you are sick you are put on end-of-life care that will involve you not being given any water until you die of thirst.

You gave up your freedom to choose what to drink, what to smoke and what to eat for that?

The Victorians ate and drink what they pleased because their aim in life was not longevity. When infants died of pneumonia and when cholera and typhoid were all around there wasn’t much point giving up baked beans or beer or indeed cigars. Instead, because people still had a sure and certain hope, the aim was to have quality of life rather than quantity.

No one then would have given up their freedom for a few extra years of gradually diminishing returns, because they realised there was no guarantee of getting those years no matter what they gave up. The bargain wasn’t worth it.

It still isn’t. Instead of freedom to choose we get collective punishment where wine is more expensive because someone else drinks too much, where food is more expensive because someone else eats too much. It might be worth giving up our freedom for immortality, but the reward for our good works and abstinence still leads but to the grave. 

The SNP’s authoritarianism is such that it will increase the cost of alcohol until it is as expensive to buy a glass of wine as a it is to buy a packet of cigarettes. If we let it there will soon be a minimum unit price on each baked bean because they are ultra processed, and you will be made to eat your carrots because Big Humza says they are good for you while failure to eat your greens will make wee Patrick think you don't like him because of bigotry against peas. 

When the SNP has taken away all our freedom, it will call it independence.

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