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Minimum pricing for alcohol: a Millian perspective


  • Ben Saunders


The Scottish National Party (SNP) has recently sought to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol in order to tackle drink-related problems. This paper outlines what the prominent nineteenth-century liberal reformer John Stuart Mill would have said about such a proposal. Mill's 1859 On Liberty argued that the only legitimate reason for the state or society to interfere in an individual's conduct is to prevent harm to others, rejecting paternalistic interventions or moralistic legislation. After outlining Mill's general position, this paper gathers a number of his scattered remarks on alcohol. It seems that he would be prepared to endorse a number of restrictions on the sale of alcohol, including age restrictions, mandatory health warnings and even anti-social behaviour orders for those guilty of violent crime when drunk. Nonetheless, Mill is clear that the state has no right to prohibit alcohol and, for the same reasons, that the state has no right to increase its cost for purpose of deterring drinking - a measure that, Mill argues, differs only in degree from outright prohibition. Thus, according to Mill, the proposal of the SNP oversteps the bounds of legitimate government interference, unjustly interfering in individual liberty. Interestingly, however, Mill allows that governments have the right to tax inessential goods for purposes of raising revenue, which suggests that the government could legitimately tax alcohol, provided its reasoning was not (as the SNP has stressed its is) to deter people from drinking.

Suggested Citation

  • Ben Saunders, 2013. "Minimum pricing for alcohol: a Millian perspective," Contemporary Social Science, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 8(1), pages 71-82, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocxx:v:8:y:2013:i:1:p:71-82
    DOI: 10.1080/21582041.2012.745589

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