Health or money? We all know the answer to that

Alcohol ads tell us drinking to excess is a danger, but that’s common sense isn’t it? And it’s not health fears driving this initiative: it’s money, of course, says Iain Murray

Knowing when to stop is a good thing. Those few chilling words signal that corporate capitalism is at last on the run. The end has been a long time coming.

It is some 200 years since hated figures in stove-pipe hats first rounded up the ruddy-faced bucolic workers of Merrie England, drove them into dark satanic mills and never ceased to crack the whip over their bent and wracked bodies. (Most hateful of all, some of these cruel masters, so it was said, watered the workers’ beer.) The next couple of centuries saw the system evolve through the repression and exploitation of labour, until it finally flowered in the creation of giant multinational corporations bent on pillaging the world’s resources to feed their gross appetite for profit and happy to poison their customers.

And what, you may ask, is finally bringing to an end this perversion of the natural order of things in which men and women gambol free in the dappled sunlight of Eden? To whom do we owe this deliverance from the long night of suffering under the yoke of Coca-Cola and the lash of Martha Stewart? Well, it has nothing to do with the vaporings of Karl Marx nor the cloth-capped idealism of Keir Hardie. And still less to do with the ragged-trousered revolutionaries who throw paving stones through windows at meetings of the G7 and the World Bank. It doesn’t even have much to do with The Guardian.

Capitalism meets its Waterloo in an unlikely alliance of vain and publicity-crazed doctors, deluded fat people, crapulous youths, and, above all, sleek and oleaginous lawyers. It is this motley crew that threatens to storm the citadels and send the fat cats fleeing into the night.

Which brings us back to that sinister sentence, “Knowing when to stop is a good thing.” They are the culminating words, the incongruous punchline, in the latest TV ad for Smirnoff vodka. Already tested in the US and judged to be a success, the commercial’s message could not be plainer – too much vodka is not good for you.

Now, of course anyone who has attained a modest degree of mental maturity knows, either from experience or reliable hearsay, that an excess of alcohol brings all sorts of consequences, from the unpleasant to the life-threatening. So why is Diageo, the maker of Smirnoff, spelling out the blindingly obvious in its TV ads? Because it’s running scared. Scared of being sued for selling a product that has the potential to do damage. Scared that if it doesn’t warn its customers of the danger that lurks in the bottle it will be wrung dry by the machinations of venal lawyers.

The threat is real. Both here and in the US there is an excess of lawyers, a grotesque and multiplying surplus of highly qualified, ambitious, ruthless and greedy professionals with insufficient work to do. In the ordinary way of things there are not enough genuine grievances and causes for litigation to go around: so it is necessary for the solicitors, barristers, notaries and attorneys to invent work for themselves. Providentially, the surplus of lawyers coincides with a surfeit of doctors eager to make a name for themselves and driven by an impulse to boss people around.

The lawyers read the papers, the same as you and I. They, too, see headlines written by journos whose calling compels them to cast aside scaremongering when hysteria will do. They, too, learn that the continents are slowly sinking beneath a Vesuvius-like outpouring of obesity and being overwhelmed by tsunamis of drunkenness.

Unlike you and I, however, who merely sigh and turn to the crossword, the lawyers, whether they believe the doctors or not, see in the newspaper reports not an epidemic, real or imagined, but money, lots of it. Enough, in fact, to enable them to gorge on all the good things that capitalism bestows.

The lawyers know, too, that common sense is a commodity that is unknown to the courts. Whereas common sense would dictate that a man who eats or drinks himself into a state of physical wreckage has only himself to blame, the courts see things differently. Consciously or not, they see men in silken stove-pipe hats who, with a cold eye and a curled lip, force Double Whoppers with extra fries down the throats of blameless citizens and ply the innocent with strong liquor. They see a wrong crying out to be remedied, they see corporations groaning under the weight of cash, and they see fellow lawyers with expensive apartments and large cars to run.

Small wonder, then, that Smirnoff counsels moderation; that Kraft Foods, the company behind Maxwell House coffee, Philadelphia cream cheese and Terry’s Chocolate, is reducing portion sizes of pre-packaged goods, giving extra nutritional information beyond what is required by law, and cutting the levels of fat and sugar in many of its products; that McDonald’s is hastily putting fresh fruit on the menu.

In truth, there is no limit to the harm that may be suffered from consuming anything sold on the market today. Food, drink, cars, cosmetics, electrical goods, even clothing (high heels, tight underpants), you name it; all the outpouring from the cornucopia of capitalism have the potential to do harm to consumers and to enrich lawyers.

Common sense tells us that free enterprise capitalism will survive. But common sense is dead.


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