Proponents of prohibition argued that alcohol was the cause of many evils and thought the solution was to enact a ban on its sale. They succeeded in their efforts, but helped usher in more evils, such as laying the financial foundation for organized crime in America. While they were right about the evils of alcohol, they were wrong about their solution.
The impact of alcohol has been studied extensively and the results of these studies back up the intuitive view that alcohol contributes to the frequency and severity of violence, especially domestic violence. It is also linked to child abuse and suicide. And, obviously enough, to drunk driving. While there is neither a necessary nor sufficient link between alcohol and violence, it does have a significant causal connection. As such, reducing alcohol consumption would reduce these harms, making a solid utilitarian moral foundation for doing so. Since prohibition is out and individual efforts are obviously limited to individuals, something with broad reach is needed to have a broad impact on the problem.
While few people would argue for prohibition, there is some support for fighting the harmful consequences of alcohol by raising the taxes on it. Intuitively, increasing the cost of a product will tend to reduce its consumption—but intuitions can be wrong. However, a large number of studies establish a link between raising alcohol taxes and reducing consumption. This, in turn, helped reduce violence. It also had other interesting effects, such as reducing the number of gonorrhea cases (which also matches the intuition that people are more likely to make poor decisions about sex when they are drunk). Raising taxes (and thus prices) is also supposed to help reduce teen drinking, thus lowering the chances that they will grow up to become heavy drinkers. These all seem to be significant benefits which can be employed in a utilitarian argument in support of the claim that raising alcohol taxes is the morally right thing to do. Naturally, the possible negative consequences must also be considered.
One point of concern is that if taxes are raised on alcohol, people will turn to more dangerous alternatives such as other drugs and “boot leg” alcohol. While some do claim that people do not turn to more dangerous alternatives, this is a matter that must be weighed when making the consideration. Even if some people did turn to more dangerous alternatives, the effect of the tax could still be positive overall in terms of reducing the amount of harm. However, if the consequences of the tax were worse than not having the tax increase, then it would be wrong. This is, of course, an empirical matter that requires evidence to resolve.
As with any tax on a commonly used product, there is the concern that it will disproportionally impact people with lower income. This concern has two main moral components. The first is that such a tax would be unfair because of this disproportionality. In this it does not differ from other sales taxes—while everyone pays the same rate, it is a higher percentage of the income of the less well off. The second is that the higher cost would hurt the less well off—they would keep buying alcohol but would suffer more of a financial burden and this could lead to more problems. This is also an empirical matter: if less well-off people spent the same as before and thus drank less, then the overall impact would be positive (assuming the claimed benefits of less alcohol consumption).
There is also the ideological opposition to increasing taxes, even for good consequences. In this case, it could be contended that the utilitarian argument should yield in favor to the moral concern about raising taxes. That is, that increasing taxes is simply wrong, even to create good results. While there are some whose opposition to taxes is absolute, this position is uncommon. After all, it is difficult to argue that it is better to not raise taxes and tolerate the serious harms, then to raise the taxes to create significant benefits.
One last concern I will consider is the opposition to the “nanny state.” The idea is that people should be responsible for their own choices and the state should not be a “nanny” that regulates behavior. One obvious response is that while raising taxes can influence people’s choices, it does not compel them to do something nor forbid them. That is, they are still free to make decisions about drinking; it will simply cost them more to drink. It could be objected that the state is still trying to influence behavior in a desired direction. This, of course, cannot be denied. But this is what states, by their very nature, do. For example, states impose penalties for things like murder, theft, and invading with the intent of influencing behavior. While anarchists are, of course, opposed to states doing these things, those who accept the state must also accept that influencing behavior through penalties and imposed costs is what states do. As such, the state trying to reduce alcohol related deaths by raising taxes is as justified as the state trying to reduce murders or illegal border crossings by imposing penalties on those behaviors. As such, increasing alcohol taxes would appear to be the right thing to do.