Friday, December 6, 2013

Holland's Alcoholics Can Drink Their Pay

For what will you work?

Some folks will work for lots of money.  Others will work for the satisfaction of helping their fellow man.  And still others will work for low pay but great benefits like employer-paid healthcare.

At stoplights here in the Dallas area, there are homeless men who hold up signs that read, "will work for food."  Then there are the jokesters who claim they'll work for chocolate, or for beer.

Well, the Dutch city of Amsterdam has you covered, at least on that last one.  They've initiated a program that pays alcoholics in beer.  Well... beer, lunch, some money, and more beer at the end of the workday.  Run by a non-profit called the Rainbow Foundation, this unconventional initiative is designed to give nearly-homeless alcoholics, who can't find regular employment because of their addiction, something worthwhile to do - pick up litter in public spaces - and pay them on the cheap.

Cheap, as in cheap beer.  The Rainbow Foundations get the least costly canned beer they can find from sympathetic distributors, and gives each destitute alcoholic two cans in the morning, two for lunch, and one or two at quitting time.

Plus lunch, half a packet of rolling tobacco, and 10 euros.  Every workday.

The Dutch claim they're not the first to try paying drunks in beer.  They say they got the idea from the Canadians, but oddly enough, several Internet searches didn't turn up anything on it.  Maybe the Canadians didn't have the guts to stick with it like Dutch liberals claim they have.  After all, they say, this is about providing a little bit of human dignity to a group of people who've been marginalized by society.  That's what Holland is all about these days, it seems.  Or so they want us to believe.

Otherwise, they rationalize, all alcoholics get told is "alcoholism is bad for you, and you should seek help."  Which, of course, is true.  Alcoholism is bad for you, and you should seek help if you have it.

But increasingly, not just in Holland, but across the Western world, it's a lot easier to be the enabler than the accountability partner.  Look at the distribution of condoms in schools, for example, or needles to drug addicts.  While paying drunks with beer may be a different wrinkle to the problem, how much of a fix is it for anything?

In an op-ed on the strategy for, writer Leonid Bershidsky actually praises Amsterdam's program, raving about how some of the men in it have reduced their alcohol consumption, and pointing out that it doesn't include hard liquor.  Holland's effort "may appear immoral to people accustomed to treating addiction with punishment," Bershidsky reasons, but he credits the country's famous secularization for nurturing the civic boldness of what he considers a creative solution.

So, the idea that an alcoholic needs to admit their problem and seek treatment is a "punishment," according Bershidsky.  Removing the consequences of antisocial behavior from the individual committing it actually is beneficial for that person.  He prefers blaming a society that doesn't benefit from certain undesired behaviors for imposing a moralistic expectation on the individuals perpetrating that undesired behavior.  Instead, he wants society to make amends for whatever the perpetrator of certain undesired behaviors has suffered.

Hey - as Bershidsky points out, it's cheaper than addiction counseling and therapy.  Amsterdam gets its parks cleaned on the cheap, and gets the drunken sots off of their benches.  Plus, participants in the program get a little self-worth from holding a job.  It's not even like it will severely impact Holland's mortality rate due to alcoholism (the men are already alcoholics).  It's a win for everybody, even the taxpayer.

Of course, as Bershidsky gets himself bogged down in national mortality rates based on alcohol consumption, he handily ignores that half-pack of tobacco the alcoholics also receive daily, but hey - why not kill two birds with one stone, right?

It's difficult to pin down Bershidsky's politics, since he's a Russian based out of Moscow, and most of his beat seems to revolve around Vladimir Putin.  But from the sound of things, might his take on the role of government sound suspiciously like that of libertarianism, in which fiscal expediency trumps morality?  After all, would either Democrats or Republicans officially advocate enabling self-destructive behavior in such a blatant fashion, even if some of their policies, however unintended, end up creating the same effect?

If you're not willing to brand Bershidsky a Libertarian, perhaps it's because beer-for-work theoretically gives government a more intrusive and decision-making role in society.  Let's start with the belief - held by many experts in scientific and medical communities everywhere but the Netherlands, apparently - that alcoholism is a biological disease.  If we can get past the liability issue of the malpractice involved when patients are intentionally given a substance that could exacerbate their medical condition (Holland has socialized medicine, after all), how much control of a society's conscience gets transferred from the populace to the government?  Yes, some experts claim that dispensing vices like prostitution, marijuana, and now beer - and Holland does all three - actually helps control the problems more conventional societies try to solve by restricting them.

But who is responsible for a person's actions?

If a government assumes more and more responsibility for how its citizenry behaves, instead of expecting its citizenry to maintain their own responsibility for their behavior, who gets to define morality?  The government, correct?  But then, who gets to enforce that morality?  Not the citizenry, for whom new moral standards may seem arbitrary.  Kind of scary, huh?

But wait - there's more.  If the government is going to pooh-pooh the objectification of women, the mental instability of pot, and now the payment of alcoholics in the very vice that locks them into their condition, how much more is government playing a role in helping to institutionalize the very problems that even the Dutch realize are, well, problematic?  If these weren't problems, after all, the Dutch wouldn't be looking for solutions.

And the solutions the Dutch have found have increased the role of government in their lives.  You see, prostitution in Holland is regulated, as is the dispensing of marijuana, and now, the beer payment method.  You can't just participate in these activities unilaterally.  The government makes certain allowances for them, and they are allowances that grant the government even more control of Dutch society.

As it is, there are currently less that 20 men in the beer-for-work program, which in terms of impact, isn't numerically significant.  So maybe the Dutch could be excused for flirting with yet another exotic government program upon which data can be collected for research and further social experimentation.  After all, for centuries, people have been fighting alcoholism with limited success.  Nobody's saying that it's easier for alcoholics to go sober.  But maybe now, after the numbers get crunched on this latest scheme, we'll have one less proof that, oh, say, five beers a day is a good way to rehabilitate a drunkard.

Meanwhile, in their coverage of this story, the New York Times tells the tale of one of the beer-for-pay workers who began to abuse alcohol in the 1970's, after his wife, pregnant with their twins, died of a drug overdose.

Whoa!  Wait!  Hold it!  You mean to say there are deeply tragic stories behind the pickled livers of these alcoholics?  You mean they didn't just show up in Amsterdam's parks as drunks?  There are painful reasons for why people are driven to make alcohol such a central - and destructive - part of their lives?

And five beers a day in partial pay represents an adequate substitute for dealing with the causes of such distress in life?  Talk about drowning your sorrows.  Or rather, drowning "in" your sorrows.

So much for the Dutch trying to portray themselves as humanitarians.

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