Does Cheap Beer Cause Violence?

Rob Horning asked me on his Marginal Utility blog what I though about a recent study linking cheap beer with increased violence.

The study, from the Violence and Society Research group, found the following:

1. The researchers examined admissions to 58 hospital accident and emergency departments over a five year period and found that as the price of beer increased, violence-related injuries decreased.

2. In general, studies have found that alcohol consumption increases both the risk of being a victim of violence and the perpetrator of it.

3. There are three main theories on why alcohol and violence are linked:
i) due to the drug effects on the brain;
ii) because people use alcohol as an excuse for violent behaviour;
iii) because people who use alcohol might be more likely to be violent, perhaps due to personality factors like sensation-seeking, impulsivity or risk-taking.

My thoughts?

1. Historically, the price of beer increases when the economy is doing well. When the economy is strong, fewer people are living in poverty. Poverty, in so far as it is linked with the increased consumption of cheaper beer (since lack of money is a leading cause of buying cheap things), causes more violence than cheap beer ever could. Lack of cheap beer is a sign that people are doing well and need not resort to violence.

In my view, beer is a basic necessity, just like bread or rice. This has been true for most people, in most places, for most of recorded history. So, for the many non-violent poor people, access to cheap beer seems like the least we can offer as comfort for the daily injustices they endure.

2. The causal link is dubious. Does alcohol cause violence? Or is alcohol consumption a symptom of other problems that cause violence, such as poverty?

3. Another theory about why alcohol and violence might be linked: for many people life is hopeless, despairing, lonely, or meaningless. Alcohol can provide solace. But people don’t get violent because they are drunk. They get violent because of problems in their lives. At worst, alcohol might be a contributing factor, easing the release of latent aggression in individuals already prone to violence. But how many times has alcohol comforted the disenfranchised? How much violence has been prevented by the stress-relieving effects of alcohol?

In my book I argue that the industrial revolution caused great social turmoil and tremendous environmental destruction. I also argue that problems associated with alcohol spiked as a result of the problems caused by industrialization. Prohibition was as much a reaction against modernism and industrialism as it was against alcohol itself. Early prohibitionists actually encouraged beer consumption as a drink of moderation and family values. Spirits like rum, made from sugar cane grown by and traded for slaves, were the real target of most prohibitionists, many of whom were also abolitionists. In general, they were advocating against violence and they mistakenly targeted alcohol itself as the perpetrator rather than setting their sights on the root causes of violence such as injustice and oppression.

Not only did Prohibition fail to stop industrialization, it actually induced violence by creating a massive network of organized crime. It also may have helped along the very same industrializing forces that were causing the social upheaval and community breakdown that was really causing violence. Henry Ford, a teetotaler himself, once said: “Booze had to go when modern industry and the motor car came in.” In other words, Prohibition was good for industrialism.

I prefer Oscar Wilde’s attitude, expressed in this quote: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.”


One Response to Does Cheap Beer Cause Violence?

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