Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Monday, December 15, 2008

Public drunkenness vs. libertarianism

One huge difference between Taiwan and the United Kingdom is the drinking culture. Drinking is of course common in Taiwan, as it is in United Kingdom. In some ways drinking is more embedded in Taiwanese culture - they have elaborate drinking games, some of which require dice and other equipment, which you can find at any bar.

But maybe the English just play different drinking games. Because I've never seen a pool of vomit on a Taiwanese street, or a fight*, or a screaming match, or even a smashed bottle. The worst I've encountered are some inconsiderately loud young guys, who had probably just finished exams, at a nearby restaurant table. And this while the ubiquitous 7-11s sell alcohol at all hours of the day, including hard spirits, for under half the price you'll find in England.

Something is different. What is it, exactly, and why? It isn't availability of alcohol; as I said, Taiwanese alcohol is cheaper and is available 24 hours a day less than a block from your apartment.

Theodore Dalrymple is understandably upset about social decline in Britain:
That the British are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any British town or city on a Saturday night - or indeed, almost any night - will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.
The deeper problem lies in the fact that much of our population believes not only that it has no duty to control itself, but also that it is actually harmful to try to do so. It believes that ''letting its hair down'' - that is to say screaming, smashing bottles, vomiting, urinating against walls in full view of others, swaying drunkenly in the gutter, hailing complete strangers to give them lifts, and so forth - is essential to its health and emotional well-being: that drinking in this fashion is a kind of Aristotelian catharsis, formerly achieved by watching the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Dalrymple's proposed solution, if I understand him correctly, is to enforce laws against public drunkenness:
Our problem is that we have no will to enforce [laws against public drunkenness]. It is, of course, impractical to arrest two or three million people every night, as theoretically should happen if our laws were to be obeyed; but it is not necessary. There are municipalities that do enforce by-laws against drinking in the streets and public drunkenness, and they are free of debauchery and violence.

I'm not a huge fan of laws against public drunkenness. After all, the problem is not the drunkenness; it's the fights, vomit and noise. Taiwanese drunks are saintly compared to English drunks.

Would it work, though? I'm sure it would, if the police had the will and the manpower. They pacified Iraq, so pacifying some unruly football hooligans should be easy. Would it be right? I've been publically drunk. Being drunk is not harmful. Things that aren't harmful, I propose, shouldn't be illegal.

But freedom is not the highest value. Sometimes, if the problem is sufficiently severe, we must be pragmatic and do what works. In Baghdad in 2007, Shia and Sunni neighborhoods waged civil war on one another. One solution was to severely restrict freedom of movement. From the New York Times, April 20, 2007:
American military commanders in Baghdad are trying a radical new strategy to quell the widening sectarian violence by building a 12-foot-high, three-mile-long wall separating a historic Sunni enclave from Shiite neighborhoods.

Soldiers in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad, a Sunni Arab stronghold, began construction of the wall last week and expect to finish it within a month. Iraqi Army soldiers would then control movement through a few checkpoints. The wall has already drawn intense criticism from residents of the neighborhood, who say that it will increase sectarian tensions and that it is part of a plan by the Shiite-led Iraqi government to box in the minority Sunnis.

A doctor in Adhamiya, Abu Hassan, said the wall would transform the residents into caged animals.

“It’s unbelievable that they treat us in such an inhumane manner,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re trying to isolate us from other parts of Baghdad. The hatred will be much greater between the two sects.”

“The Native Americans were treated better than us,” he added.

The American military said in a written statement that “the wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”

I guess it worked. Violence in Iraq is way, way down, and now they're removing the barriers. Michael Yon reports:
Installing the miles of ugly concrete barriers was like patching up the internal bleeding of Baghdad – the heart of Iraq. The barriers did not “solve” the problem any more than a bandage cures a bullet wound, yet bandages saved lives. Removing these concrete barriers will be like removing the bandages to allow real healing to take place. We are only starting now, and it may take years before they are all gone.

I'm glad I don't have to make that kind of decision, but I'm glad the barriers were erected. Having abandoned libertarian principles, where does that leave me?

Well, it could leave me in the very defensible position that I'm willing to abandon libertarian principles during a civil war. And I could say: the level of disorder in the United Kingdom is not sufficient to suspend the freedom to be drunk in public, a freedom I and millions of others have enjoyed and not abused. The disorder in the United Kingdom kills and injures people, and imposes significant costs on society, but the freedom to be drunk in public (and the cost of the probable implementation of banning it - breath-testing of pedestrians, for example) matters more.

I'm not completely satisfied with that answer. I'm so happy to be in Taiwan rather than England. The difference between the barbaric nightlife in England and that in Taiwan is stark. So to one who proposes a solution that I agree would work, and who is staying in England rather than leaving, I'd be sheepish in suggesting he stay at home between the hours of 9pm and 6am.

But the universe does not owe us clean, easy solutions to every problem. Freedom is at least a great heuristic.

*I've never witnessed a fight in Taiwan, but I did hear of one particularly brutal assault in which a friend of a friend was hospitalized last month. The victim and the attackers were all white, and were all drunk. White people have a certain, somewhat deserved, reputation in Taiwan.

Added: It turns out I've been a little too kind to Taiwan; apparently I just wasn't looking for trouble in the right (wrong?) places. You can indeed find pools of vomit if you know where to look. Street violence is still near-non-existent though.


Post a Comment

<< Home