The DWP says that, in 2011-12, working age people got £52.7bn in benefits. Of this, £16.6bn was housing benefit and £2.7bn council tax benefit, so benefit recipients saw £33.4bn. This is 2.2% of GDP, and 5.2% of total government spending.
What fraction of this £33.4bn is spent on drink and ciggies? We can use table A6 of the latest Family Spending tables as a guide. These show that the poorest decile spend an average of £148,80 per week on non-housing. Of this, £2.70 per week (1.8%) goes on alcohol and £3.90 (2.6%) on tobacco and narcotics. If we apply these proportions to the £33.4bn of benefit income, then £606m of those benefits are spent on alcohol and £875m on tobacco.
But the government gets a lot of this money back in VAT and excise duties - about £689m on tobacco and £190m on alcohol. This implies that benefit recipients' spending on tobacco and alcohol costs taxpayers a net £602m. In fact, not even this much, to the extent that brewers and tobacco manufacturers pay tax on their incomes.
This is a tiny sum. It's 0.09% of public spending and 0.04% of GDP. In making an issue of this, Ms Price is enlarging things out of their proper proportion.How unlike her.
What's going on here? Usually, I'd quote C.B.Macpherson, to the effect that there's still a puritan strand in politics which regard poverty as a moral failing and the poor as objects of condemnation. However, considering Ms Price's career, puritanism is hard to discern.
Instead, I suspect what we see with her and with Ukip - and, one could argue, with some who support press regulation whilst favouring social liberalism in other contexts - is asymmetric libertarianism. People want freedom for themselves whilst seeking to deny it to others; this is why some Ukippers can claim to be libertarian whilst opposing immigration and gay marriage. This debased and egocentric form of libertarianism is more popular than the real thing.