An unusual Dutch initiative aims to put an end to one of Amsterdam’s worst nuisances — those bawdy, loitering alcoholics — by employing them in a kind of street cleaning corps. The problem, though, is that the state-financed Rainbow Foundation behind the project pays the self-professed chronic alcoholics in beer for their labor.
“The aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park,” Gerrie Holterman, who heads the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP, referring to Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, an apparent favorite haunt of the alcoholics. And at least some of the participants agree on the apparent benefits of the initiative. One man in the program named Frank told AFP, “Lots of us haven’t had any structure in our lives for years, we just don’t know what it is, and so this is good for us.”
But by offering positive reinforcement to Amsterdam alocholics’ worst tendencies, the weirdly commonsense solution to the problem of drunks causing a ruckus in public parks raises some serious ethical questions. The two groups of about ten people work three days a week cleaning city streets and are paid ten euros a day for their labor, along with a half-packet of rolling tobacco and five cans of beer. The men start the day off with two cans, have another two at lunch, and finish off with a last can in the afternoon. Did being an alcoholic ever pay so well?
The AFP article suggests that the program is symptomatic of what it calls “Dutch pragmatism.” While the article doesn’t elaborate on what that exactly means, it is probably an allusion to the kind of permissiveness behind the country’s famously lax drug and prostitution laws. “The Dutch tend to think that it will happen anyway, whether they prohibit it or not,” a 2001 BBC article on Dutch permissiveness argued. “The logic is simple — tolerate it, rather than prohibit it and subsequently lose control.” It was this rationale that was reportedly behind the legalization in the Netherlands of prostitution, “soft drugs,” and even euthanasia (“under strict conditions”). But that philosophy is by no means a uniquely Dutch philosophy. The same logic underpin a number of other initiatives to combat social problems in other countries also. Publicly funded “sex boxes” built in Zurich, for example, aim to give sex workers a safe and contained place in which to work. Several U.S. cities have established clean needle exchanges to combat the spread of HIV among needle drug users and the public healthcare costs associated with it.
But the new Amsterdam program has taken that “pragmatism” to a new height that no doubt some will find problematic. Paying alcoholics in beer doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the problem in the name of practicality but turns it into labor that benefits the city, even at the risk of worsening these alcoholics’ drinking problem. The plan highlights a problematic quality of so-called “Dutch pragmatism”: If a government really does subscribe to the premise that social ills like alcoholism are inevitable, then can it be implicated in encouraging it, even if it’s part of a scheme that obviously profits the city? In other words, if cities are free from the burden of correcting social ills because they are inevitable, are they also free from the guilt of potentially worsening it?
“You have to see things like this: everyone benefits,” Holterman, the head of the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP about the program. The obvious rejoinder to that sunny Dutch optimism — or, wait, was it pragmatism? — is whether the alcoholics really benefit. The family members of the alcoholics cleaning the benches of the Oosterpark might not be so overjoyed that the government is validating their decision to drink.
They might still have some hope that their alcoholic father, brother, or son might still get sober.