Last week the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from .08 to .05, a standard that many other countries have already adopted. The change would mean that a man consuming two 5 oz. glasses of wine in an hour would be close to the legal limit depending on body weight; most women would be able to consume only 1 drink in an hour. If the wine is a high alcohol Zinfandel even that modest level of consumption might put one over the limit.
Analysts estimate that such a change would save 500-800 lives per year based on the number of deaths per year in which the BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) of the driver was in the .05-.079 range.
The recommendation, which would of course have to be implemented by state legislatures to go into effect, has drawn some commentary from the wine press (see Tom Wark’s post) because of the impact it would have on wineries, wine bars, and the rest of the hospitality industry. Wine writer Blake Gray has called for a concerted effort to oppose the proposal. I have my doubts about whether the proposal would ever become law—the hospitality industry will fight it for obvious reasons.
But the proposal does raise important moral and policy questions. Is it justifiable for society to limit the consumption of alcohol in order to save 500-800 lives per year? Under proposed limits, visits to wine country would change, mandating smaller pours or fewer wines per flight and making the whole experience less attractive. As wine lovers who also care about the lives of 800 people, how should we respond to such a proposal?
I have no idea how the NTSB gets their estimates or how good the science is behind these numbers. To claim that alcohol was involved in an accident is not to claim it was the primary cause. And if alcohol was not the primary cause of accidents among drivers with a BAC of .05-.079, we cannot say the accident would not have occurred but for the presence of alcohol. If we can’t claim that then the restriction on consumption serves no purpose.
However, for the sake of the argument let’s suppose their estimates are legit. Despite our love of wine, we cannot ignore the lives of 800 people. The question is how to weigh the value of those lives against the loss of pleasure and autonomy that will ensue if the proposal were law. Of course, to the 800 people who die, and their families, the value of the their lives is infinite. And many people might say the loss of pleasure from having to limit wine (or beer and spirits) consumption is trivial. But that logic simply takes us back to prohibition since any amount of alcohol consumption likely causes some deaths; and that logic will bring the prohibition of fats, simple carbs, sugar, salt, etc. along with it.
Pleasure is part of life and the people who want to outlaw it need to get one.
Instead of pitting the pleasure-seekers against the party-poopers we need some way of impartially assessing whether incurring a risk is rational. Political philosophy supplies us with the following method of assessing risk, which tests for whether we are excessively influenced by self-interested motives.
Imagine that you are a member of a committee charged with the task of formulating laws that will govern society. As a member of this committee you are sworn to deliberate under the “veil of ignorance”.* Under the veil of ignorance you know basic facts about human nature and general features of society as gathered by social science. But you don’t know anything about your own circumstances—nothing about your socio-economic status, religious affiliations, personal preferences, etc. So you know you are self-interested but you don’t know what that interest is. You also know that the population of your country is about 314,000,000, that 67% of adults in your society drink alcohol and get substantial enjoyment from it, nearly all at some point have a BAC of over .05%, and that 500-800 deaths will be caused by drivers with a BAC within the .05-.079 range. Of course you don’t know whether you are in the alcohol consuming group or among the 800 per year who will die. Importantly, you also don’t know what your personal tolerance for risk is. In other words, you know the distribution of risk in society but not your location in that distribution.
What policy should you as a committee member chose to support. Clearly, the probability of any individual ending up in the group of 800 each year (in a population of 314 million) is vanishingly small. Since the marginal expected utility of moderate drinking given the size of the population is substantial it seems irrational to choose the more restrictive policy.
The NTSB seems to be assuming that under the veil of ignorance we should choose what political philosophers and social scientists call the “maximin” strategy–choose the option that yields the best payoff under the worst scenario, the worse scenario being that you’re in the group of 800 who will die. Hence, they think you should choose the strategy that minimizes your chances of being in that group. But that strategy is reasonable only if you don’t know the probabilities. In this case, the NTSB has supplied them.
In ordinary life, rational people routinely make risky life choices—they invest their wealth in a risky business venture, choose to climb dangerous mountains, and risk death on the freeway in order to buy some artisanal cheese instead of the flavorless stuff at 7/11. Maximizing risk avoidance is rational in some circumstances but not as a general strategy for developing policy where the satisfaction of desires plays an important role in our concept of well-being. There is utterly no reason to adopt a policy as restrictive as this
So I’m curious—are the folks at NTSB opposed to pleasure, risk, or both? And what screening mechanisms ensure they hire only pathologically risk-averse ascetics?
*Philosophers will recognize a version of this thought experiment that originated with John Harsanyi and was deployed to great effect by John Rawls.