The WHO’s Attack on Alcohol Is a Bad Idea

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The WHO dares to go beyond these limits by arguing in favor of enforcing globally one-size-fits-all rules and taxations schemes regarding alcohol consumption.

This is a consultation response by the Hayek Institut to a global action plan by the World Health Organization to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, published by the WHO here

 “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. … The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty (1859)

What is the proper task of government? It is an important question which we have, however, often forgotten to ask in our own days. As the famous 18th-century philosopher Juan Stuart Mill argues in the quote above, the state should generally only be concerned with affairs of punishing crimes, of interfering when one harms the other. Mill’s Harm Principle, then, states that as long as third parties are not injured by one’s actions, there is no role for the government to play in preventing ‘self-harm.’ Vices are not crimes and there is no single objective goal that fits every individual’s ideal. Freedom should reign in these questions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) dares to go beyond these limits by arguing in favor of enforcing globally one-size-fits-all rules and taxation schemes regarding alcohol consumption, including, once more, in their proposal for “a global strategy to reduce the harm of alcohol.” Although, the main objective of the WHO is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” it is unclear why we ought to think this should be the task of governments, both supranational and more local. Shouldn’t the attainment of the “highest possible level of health” be the task of the individual, if he or she wants to strive for this? Wouldn’t a legislative approach which states that health, meaning living a full and complete life of happiness (the truth to this statement is another question for another time), which is the exact same all over the world, regardless of local circumstances, interfere too much into an individual’s life?

Having said that – and leaving moral arguments for a moment – one of the ways to achieve this goal is, as the WHO says, by proposing “a bold and ambitious overall target of a 20% reduction of per capita alcohol consumption until 2030.” Hoping every person to cut his alcohol consumption by 20% in less than a decade is absurd. If it was that simple and could have been done by now, why haven’t governments around the world done so already? On top of that, globally, alcohol consumption on a per capita basis has risen dramatically in the past two decades. Thus, for sure, this proposal is bold and ambitious, but realistic it is not. Which begs the question, where does the WHO get the confidence that such a goal is attainable?

However, let’s imagine such rules and end goals become reality. If such rules are imposed, hardly any member state will manage to follow them. Even by doing so, black markets will flourish and goals will be as unattainable as ever. Failing to succeed in curbing alcohol consumption might open the floodgates for more burdens and control. Because every time governments cannot manage to solve a problem, the solution is more funding and more regulation. Mises warned us that “as soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest details.” And if you don’t believe Mises, take a look at the shift in attitude between the 2010 Global Alcohol Strategy and the proposal we are facing today. If under-the-counter alcohol transactions were recognized as problematic, to say the least, and rightfully so, they are all but forgotten in this working document. This way, more space has been left open for the “real problem,” alcohol consumption itself, not harm-related alcohol consumption. That is why ideas like “20% reduction of per capita alcohol consumption until 2030” are floating around.

When will we learn that problems cannot be solved by a stroke of a pen? When will we learn that especially one-size-fits-all solutions not only don’t solve problems but make them worse?

Laws should be based on general principles. If one such principle is freedom, let the individual, the sovereign choose his own path. Life belongs to the individual. We need more self-control instead of state, or in this case, intergovernmental control. Thus, we find this proposed global strategy to be utterly lacking in humility in regards to what politics can do and respect vis-à-vis the individual.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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