Drunk as a Lord

April 6, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like Andrew Gelman, I’m puzzled by Tyler Cowen’s assertion about alcohol:
There is an elite which has absolutely no problems handling the institution in question, but still there is the question of whether the nation really can have such bifurcated social norms, namely one set of standards for the elite and another set for everybody else.
Do the elite really have no problem handling alcohol?  I guess it comes down to definitions of problem and handling.  Despite examples like Ted Kennedy, most drunks don’t kill people.  More to the point, Kennedy’s elite status insulated him from the worst consequences of his fatal drunken driving.  It’s good to be the king.  Or a Kennedy.*  No doubt, many among the elite can’t handle liquor, but they don’t have a problem.  Even for middle-class people with less economic and social capital, drunkenness and even alcoholism need not be a problem. 

As long as the drug is the sole preserve of the elite, it’s not a problem for society either.  But what happens when a drug becomes democratized? Until the 1980s, cocaine had, thanks to its cost, been confined mostly to the elite. Then, in its inexpensive form, crack, it became widely available to the masses.  Suddenly, it was a social problem.  In typical fashion, US policy-makers defined the problem as criminality and dealt with it by enacting more and more draconian punishments. 

Those new laws amply illustrate what Tyler Cowen refers to as “bifurcated social norms, namely one set of standards for the elite and another set for everybody else,” except that these weren’t norms, they were laws. The sentence for selling  5 grams of crack was the same as for selling 500 grams of cocaine. As for that other set of more punitive norms for “everybody else,” guess who“everybody else” was.  Mostly Black people. 

The changing demographic for cocaine and the reaction to that change paralleled what happened in the “gin crisis” in England only a few hundred years before. [I am now going to recycle some paragraphs and a jpeg from a post I did five years ago.]

Up until the 1730s, only the wealthy, propertied classes could afford distilled spirits, mostly brandy. It’s not that they didn’t drink to excess – the phrase “drunk as a lord” dates back to the mid-1600s – but their drinking wasn’t a social problem.

Then came cheap gin and the democratization of drunkenness. The lower classes had the tuppence to get drunk as a lord. But they lacked the means to keep the drunkenness from becoming a problem. I suppose it didn’t really matter if the lords were too drunk to work; their wealth insulated them, their families, and the society against the drawbacks of drunkenness. Not so the inhabitants of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

What followed were the gin laws of 1736, so discriminatory that they provoked riots. That may be the main place where the parallels between gin and crack diverge. It’s hard to imagine people taking to the streets over the 100-1 cocaine-to-crack law in the way that lower-class Londoners rioted to protest the gin laws. But then, lower-class Londoners did not have the vote; the streets may have been their only avenue for political action. In any case, the gin laws were not very effective (back to the parallels with crack), but after fifteen or twenty years, the crisis had run its course, and lower-class drinking was no longer a threat to the integrity of society.

* As Clone High viewers know, nothing bad ever happens to the Kennedys. (HT: Max)

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