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Cowen on Alcohol Consumption

Cheers to social contagion.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
July 26, 2023; ported here on January 24, 2024

To follow up my article on decriminalization, let's consider Tyler Cowen's claim that drinking alcohol can "create contagion effects for others."

Obviously this is something we should worry about. At a minimum, we should never strongly socially pressure someone to drink alcohol or consume other drugs. We should be especially sensitive to people with a history of drug abuse. (An aside: According to A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, Vince Taylor's life took a decided turn for the worse when Taylor discovered LSD at a Bob Dylan party.)

But I do not think that generally we should abstain from doing things that we enjoy just because doing those things might encourage others to do them in a self-harmful way. We have an obesity epidemic in this country, but I'm not going to give up moderate consumption of chocolate cake.

Cowen just ignores the real joys that some people get from brewing and drinking beer, pairing a fine wine with a meal, detecting the nuances of one Scotch over another, and the like. A cost-benefit analysis of alcohol consumption that ignores all the benefits is going to render an absurd conclusion.

It's plausible that moderate use of other drugs also provides some benefit or enjoyment to their users. Certainly many people claim to derive some benefit or enjoyment from taking illegal drugs. Recently I rewatched the (outstanding) film Clueless, and at one point Cher says, "It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day." One researcher writes (1978), "Coca chewing is a widespread and culturally accepted habit in the Andean highlands, very much like cigarette smoking or coffee drinking elsewhere." There's some debate over how bad it is for you. Sam Harris is among the proponents of (some) use of psychedelics. I'm certainly not prepared to say that drugs including marijuana, coca, opioids, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and LSD never provide meaningful benefits to the people who use them. (I take it that Cowen does not join the Mormons in calling for abstinence from coffee, probably America's most popular form of drug consumption.)

Part of what it means to live in a free society is that people get to choose for themselves where to seek enjoyment, how much risk to accept in their activities, and so on.

To a large degree, the "contagion effects" of which Cowen speaks are benign. If I ask my wife if she'd like me to pour her a glass of wine with dinner, that might prompt her to drink an extra glass of wine—but so what? My wife has no problems with alcohol. Similarly, recently when I met a friend for dinner at a restaurant I ordered a beer, perhaps prompting or inviting him to do likewise. Again, so what? Recently Denver YIMBY groups hosted a member of Congress at a distillery to discuss YIMBY policies, and many people there ordered drinks. How is that a problem? This case points to the "social capital" often developed over a drink. Here is another photo of mine of that event:

Photo of 2023 Denver YIMBY event at a distillery.

True, alcohol consumption often is not benign; often it is a health risk and causally related to behaviors that harm self and others. But are the people who abuse alcohol and other drugs really swayed by the behavior of responsible drug users? Probably not very often. People are most swayed by their social groups, and people with similar drug habbits tend to hang out together.

Insofar as there is a "contagion effect," why does Cowen think that teetotaling has a greater effect than responsible drinking? It seems to me that people modeling responsible drinking can positively influence others' behavior. The implicit message is, "You don't have to drink, and if you are especially prone to addiction you should not drink, but if you do drink you should do so responsibly."

I think we should be a lot more concerned with ideological "contagion" (influence). An important idea that we should encourage others to embrace is that individuals are responsible for their own lives. By accepting and promoting the idea that people may blame others for their self-harmful behavior, we undermine self-responsibility and set the stage for self-fulfilling prophesies.

Which is the more powerful message:

1) "I'm going to give up alcohol because you're too irresponsible and socially dependent to handle alcohol responsibly unless you see me give it up entirely," or

2) "Whether you consume alcohol and other drugs, and how you consume them if you do, is your responsibility, so don't blame me or others for your drug abuse."

It seems obvious that 2) is by far the more powerful and important message to convey. If social contagion really works, then (somewhat paradoxically) let's use it to promote self-responsibility rather than mindless conformity.

In the end, individuals are responsible for their own lives. You should not look to government, society as a whole, or even your own friends to save you from your vices. If your friends encourage you to vice, you should get better friends. If you are too-easily influenced by damaging behaviors around you, then you should grab more firmly onto the reins of your life and better-control your own choices and your surroundings. Be responsible for your own life.

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