Alcohol, “rape culture,” taxation, and libertarianism

Even when a libertarian asserts the role of alcohol in rape (in order to make fun of feminists) he won’t accept the corollary: that you could reduce rape by raising taxes on alcohol.

Robby Soave of Reason’s Hit & Run pokes fun at some feminists so fixated on the gender dynamics underlying physical and sexual violence against women that they want to deny the role of alcohol. Fair comment, I suppose, though it seems to me that Soave’s colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown offers a more sensible interpretation of the “rape culture” idea.  (The tendency to give other people’s words trivial and vicious interpretations rather than looking for sensible interpretations of them must rank very high on the blogosphere’s list of besetting sins.)

And of course there’s no reason why acquaintance rape, like other phenomena, shouldn’t have more than one cause. In a culture whose ideas about masculinity involved less sexual score-keeping and less tolerance for violence, alcohol use might be associated with less rape; at the same time, in the culture we actually have (which feminists, with little enough help from the Robby Soaves of the world, are trying to change) less use of alcohol (both by those who become perpetrators and by those who become victims) would probably also lead to less rape. There’s no contradiction there, just the acceptance of a multi-causal world. Nor does pointing to the role of alcohol diminish the culpability of the rapist; the rape may well have been done under the influence, but the decision to get drunk (and, frequently, to encourage the intended seducee/victim to become drunk) was made by a sober man, or – often enough – a sober adolescent trying to pretend he’s a man.

That said, I’m grateful to Soave for pointing out the role of alcohol, and to the editors of Hit & Run for publishing the piece. Now that we’ve agreed that alcohol is a key factor in rape, as it is in homicide and motor vehicle fatality, the question is what to do about it. The obvious answer, if one believes in markets, is to raise the price of alcohol by taxation.

But of course the official libertarian line is that taxing alcohol would be unfair to those drinkers who aren’t drunken rapists or drunken brawlers or drunken drivers.  Any unfairness to rape victims from low alcohol taxes is simply the price of a free society. (Oh, and alcohol taxation is also “regressive,” which you must admit is a weighty argument from people who hate progressive taxation.)

Where does that leave us? Why, with vacuous prescriptions about “fostering”  “a teen culture of responsible alcohol consumption,” for example by “lowering the drinking age.”

But of course that’s all moonshine, with the marketing and political muscle of the booze industries solidly lined up against anything that might foster moderation in alcohol use, even if we knew how to do so. And of course limiting the commercial and political “free speech” of the people who make their money selling products that kill 90,000 people a year and send hundreds of thousands to emergency rooms, rape crisis centers, and prison cells would be unthinkable.

So what’s a libertarian to do? Why, make fun of feminists! That’s always safe.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “Alcohol, “rape culture,” taxation, and libertarianism”

  1. I have no intention of reading that person's work, but it seems to me that it's a good thing to talk about the idea of consent a lot more. I found last weekend's NYT piece by a Yale Law School professor to be rather vague and disappointing (even though I think he meant well), so it's clear that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. (I think the crux of the matter is the idea of impairment. A gray area to drive several trucks through. Anyhow.) If a guy teaching at Yale is confused, well, we have a problem.

    But yes, it is silly to pretend that alcohol isn't a big part of this problem, as well as many others. Though I would say that taxation is not at all the first route of attack that I would choose.

  2. Are you a parent Mark? Is it your opinion that you could not foster responsible alcohol use in your offspring in the face of alcohol marketing and affordable alcohol?

    Off course, six taxes have a Goldilocks sweet spot, beyond which they encourage evasion, black markets and acquisitive crime. Making a commodity more expensive also makes it more valuable.

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