We need to be able to think clearly to be free

With the US celebrating its political independence and the UK the reopening of pubs tomorrow, July 4th, it is worth remembering that it is our capacity for clear thinking which underpins our personal freedom.

Alcohol reduces our ability to make good decisions, while our decision to consume this mind-numbing substance is often made on the basis of coercion or misguided expectations.

In many situations we may expect immediate penalties for not drinking, which can seem like a mandatory entry-ticket for full social participation.

And, once across our blood-brain barrier, alcohol influences our decisions in ways we can only be partially aware of while experiencing our own alcohol-influenced thoughts and feelings.

Inebriation slows our brain activity, so reducing our brain’s role in informing our actions. From the inside, however, things seem to speed up. Our fate is left more to luck.

The gamble can sometimes pay off, sometimes not. About two in every five prisoners says they were drunk when they committed the offence which led to their abrupt loss of freedom.

Learning difficulties
Alcohol also often triggers brain responses which make inebriation seem to have great significance, making us more inclined to repeat it. We cannot be relied on to realise.

Alcohol also increases anxiety, mood and interferes with sleep, while we commonly feel the opposite. So we can easily find ourselves spending undue resources on consuming alcohol.  

Heavy drinking can make our brains misfire sober, meaning we feel tense, forgetful and gloomy between sessions. Dementia and mental health problems are far more likely.

The discomfort of sobriety when alcohol dependent makes escape an ever-more attractive option. This is why we might spend our last few pennies on barely-drinkable budget brands.

Freedom is about more than the freedom to buy things. To be free we need an environment in which we are spared from harm, including damage to our mental capacity.

Commercial restrictions and timely and accurate information can help us avoid alcohol harm and in turn reducing our chance of other harmful errors.

Clarity before commerce
Our freedom to shop should not outweigh our freedom to think clearly. We would not champion our freedom to lock ourselves out of our own house, though it is among our freedoms.

A notice reminding us, say, to remember our keys before going out, or warning us of a blind bend are not oppressive. Similarly alcohol warnings are no infringement of our freedom.

Nor is it oppressive to withhold instruments used almost exclusively for self-harm. Minimum alcohol unit pricing, on trial in Scotland, may to be found to do exactly this.

Alcohol drinking can be pleasurable, but it also underlies many mistakes, small and big. Preventing these does not diminish our freedom to be spontaneous or take risks.

Measures to curtail heavy alcohol use can help share freedom’s benefits more widely. They are keys to greater freedom. ■