More Laws, More Crime

In 1920, the United States passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. The next thirteen years saw an upshot in banditry, the rise of organised crime on the backs of alcohol smuggling, gang violence, police corruption and an international alcohol smuggling racket that raked in millions of dollars and became increasingly tolerated by society.

Lawmakers supporting Singapore’s islandwide alcohol ban evidently did not learn the lessons of Prohibition. While this softer Prohibition would not lead to the depravity described above, it would nevertheless make more criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens for the most spurious of reasons: complaints about public drunkenness and excessive liquor consumption..

Should the ban pass, alcohol may only be sold from 7 am to 10.30 pm. The reality is that most actual alcohol sales would be restricted from 6.30pm to 10.30pm, at best, for the working week. Most people need to go to work or school, and then travel to the nearest retail outlet when they are finished. Given Singapore’s working culture and traffic conditions a more realistic time frame would be 7.30pm to 10.30pm for the majority of alcohol sales. Even on weekends, alcohol consumption tends to take place in the evening during social gatherings — the new restrictions would force people to purchase alcohol well in advance, hustle to shops before they run out of time, or do without. Retailers might see a shift in alcohol sales patterns to the weekends — or else drop off altogether.

According to the Straits Times, retailers ranging from supermarket chains to convenience stores would potentially see a loss of 20 to 30 percent of their revenue due to this ban. Should the ban pass, retailers would have to contemplate three courses of action: accept the loss in revenue, sharply reduce stock to accommodate the new sales time, and increase prices to make up for reduced income. Large retailers with many in-demand goods like Sheng Shiong and Fairprice might be able to accept the loss of income and make up for it elsewhere; convenience stories, especially mama stores with established reputations, may not.

One of the great flaws of the ban is that it sharply reduces supply without affecting demand. Economics theory predicts that a black market will inevitably arise. To combat this, the government allows retailers to apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, both for retailers and for people wishing to organise public events with drinking. The problem is that just about everyone who drinks and sells alcohol anywhere in Singapore would be affected by this ban; this would require the creation of a large bureaucracy to handle the inevitable paperwork and mass appeals, in the form of a Licensing Officer and a Liquor Appeal Board.

One of two things are likely to happen. First, a huge number of people would apply for and be granted exemptions to the act. Secondly, only a fairly small group of retailers, those able to make their case and afford to do so, are granted the exemptions. The first scenario effectively defeats the purpose of the ban, unless its purpose were simply to impoverish retailers, inconvenience citizens and expand the role of the government in everyday life. The second outcome would mean that the unlucky masses whose petitions are rejected would be increasingly dissatisfied with the government and seek workarounds at higher cost to themselves. Retailers, in particular, would have to raise prices if they cannot absorb the loss in revenue. Not just prices of alcohol, but everything else, since the latter now has to yield a greater proportion of income than alcohol for the retailer to remain profitable.

Which would fuel a black market.

The alkie bootlegger’s playbook is almost a century old. They could buy alcohol legally in neighbouring regions, then smuggle them into Singapore. Some retailers, forced to choose between feeding their families or breaking the law, would choose the latter and quietly sell alcohol under the counter to trusted customers past the cut-off time. Other enterprising sorts would legally purchase alcohol from retailers in bulk, then sell it on the streets or in their homes after 10.30pm. There would always be demand, and it is impossible to curb demand by attacking supply.

Even if every single retailer somehow complied with the law, the law still would not address the problem of public disorder caused by drunkenness. Evidently the ones who proposed the bill have no understanding of human nature. None of them contemplated the possibility of someone getting drunk at home or in a pub, then going out and causing trouble on the streets. Nobody ever thought of people going into a pub, buying liquor, and smuggling it out to enjoy outside. Nobody wondered whether people, already drunk, would confuse the boundary between private and public space.

That, or they just did not care.

As a corollary, with new laws on the books, the police now have to take on a greater enforcement burden. They need to study the new laws, be familiar with legislation, figure out new workflows to liaise with the liquor control authorities, inspect and regulate premises, chase black marketeers and wrangle drunks.

The police cannot be everywhere. A police officer deployed to investigate reports of a retailer selling liquor past 10.30 pm is a police officer that is not investigating a theft. A police officer arresting someone for drinking in public is a police officer who is not arresting a loanshark. A police officer who is chasing someone for failing to pay alcohol-related fines is a police officer who is not walking the beat and preventing more serious crimes.

Further, as this article by Stephen Carter points out, police are charged with enforcing laws, with violence if needs be. Should the ban pass, police officers will now have to go after people illegally selling alcohol in public. Inevitably some of them will resist arrest, and some would resist with violence. This exposes police officers to a greater risk of injury — and treatment would be paid with taxpayer dollars. It also means that there will be a greater chance of police officers hurting or killing someone they did not have to, over something as trivial as selling or drinking alcohol in public, when it was not a crime otherwise. Will there be a Singaporean Eric Garner? I don’t know — all I know is that the more trivial laws are passed, the more likely there will be one.

A government that seeks to legislate permissible behaviours in society will increase its population of criminals. A government that requires people to seek approval to do something is a government that aims to increase its ability to control its people. In neither case should the government go unchallenged, especially when it wishes to pass blunt, sweeping measures over what is essentially a public nuisance. Should the ban pass, it is likely to make people poorer, force people to jump through even more hoops, impose a greater burden on the police and judiciary, and make criminals out of a larger segment of the population, all in the name of curbing public drunkenness.

Is the ban worth it?