The intoxication of the reformer can be as destructive as the intoxication of the drunkard. So it often is when social reformers involve themselves in the politics of alcohol, and so it was when Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggested in a letter to budget director David Stockman that the federal excise tax on distilled spirits be raised to adjust for inflation and that the tax on beer and wine be raised to the same level as that on distilled spirits. This, he says, would bring $25 billion a year into the Treasury while discouraging drinking by some people and helping reduce the nation's alcohol problem.
William Raspberry, too, seems to have been carried away by his enthusiasm for the proposal. In his Oct. 23 op-ed column Raspberry calls Jacobson's plan "a good idea, on virtually every count" and declares that even opponents of the Reagan economic package can "see the value of a proposal that promises to improve both the physical and fiscal health of the nation."
But if the administration decides to raise excise taxes on alcoholic beverages as a means of raising revenue, it can't claim to be helping alcoholic people at the same time. It just won't work that way.
Social engineers and reformers like to think of the world as a machine: replace a gear, tighten a screw, and you get optimum performance. An excise tax as a panacea for alcohol abuse is just such a mechanical solution. Make booze too expensive, the social engineer thinks, and people will stop buying it.
But people aren't machines. Alcoholic people don't drink because they haven't the will power to resist liquor that's cheap and available. Alcoholism has nothing to do with will power; it is an illness, with complex physical, social, psychological, spiritual and familial components.
A higher excise tax won't price alcoholic people out of the market; their illness compels them to drink. Even the flat broke, skid row derelict hustles pennies and nickels and gets that bottle. The persons an excise tax will price out of the market are those who can take alcohol or leave it. Using taxes as a deterrent to consumption can reduce healthy drinking, leaving unhealthy drinking as the chief role model for the young.
Excise taxes, or indeed most forms of formal controls on alcohol use, have a great potential for mischief. Prohibition should have taught us how much harm can be done in the guise of good. Not the least of the harm is that people suffering from the illness of alcoholism never fare worse than during a time of harsh control. During Prohibition, alcoholic people languished in county jails and psychiatric hospitals or were neglected entirely.
Certainly an increase in the excise tax on beer and wine will raise money. But as for controlling consumption of these beverages, evidence from Ireland and other countries shows that upping the price of beer and wine will push people toward distilled spirits. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, the reformer may say; and yes, beer and wine, just like distilled spirits, can be misused as a solution for personal problems. But it doesn't take a chemist to know that the more concentrated the form of a drug, the more potentially disastrous its effects. When spirits become as cheap as beer or wine, the addicted or abusive drinker will switch to spirits to get more of the drug alcohol per unit of beverage. An unwillingness to cut the defense budget should not constitute a mandate for political opportunism at the expense of alcoholic people.