Sin Taxes and the Welfare State

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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61 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I see something happening similar to the crack cocaine/powder cocaine problem.

    People prone to use the one will have the hammer of the law come down on them *HARD*. People prone to use the other will receive probation, a stiff fine, and a warning. Maybe get their own show on VH1.

    And, as time goes on, there will be more and more resentment on the part of the people who want to help us that we aren’t being helped… specifically the people who obviously need the help the most.

    We’ve seen this before and we’ve seen it before a hundred times.

    And it’s never different this time, no matter how many assurances we get.Report

  2. Avatar Kyle says:

    I started to make shorter version of this as a comment but didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t because this is so well articulated.

    Though I completely agree with you here, I wonder if this doesn’t – to go in a different direction – underline the need and/or usefulness of an automatic sunset clause to legislation, so that every so often, we’re – at least in theory – required to renew our commitment upon review of the benefit.

    So that the problem you mention of activities A,B, and C being affected does get factored into the rechartering/re authorization. Incidentally, I’m reading a history of American law and looking back at antebellum forms of limiting liability/corporate law, I’m not at all convinced that the perpetual corporation – or for that matter – legislative creation of anything in perpetuity was and continues to be a beneficial innovation.

    I don’t know if it was in these parts but I recall remarking in an earlier conversation on universal health care, public health, and the nannynutritionist-state, that the statement of I pay for your health care ergo, I have some say in how you conduct your life w/r/t your health is terrifyingly logical.

    It doesn’t apply to alcohol though prospectively and generally, I believe it does.

    Incidentally, I think the traditional response to your exit question has been, federalism.Report

  3. I think there’s a bit of a logical leap being made here by the post that somehow forcing people to pay the costs of the externalities (through social programs, for example) is somehow an infringement of their choices. Externalities will exist regardless of whether there’s a social program to account for those costs or not. Someone will always be responsible for those economic costs. Fundamentally how is it not an infringement of liberty for people to be forced to pay the cost of someone else’s choices? Because there’s an absence of government programs to account for the true costs?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Let me ask you this (assume the war on drugs is mostly cool, excepting weed):

      Are the externalities created by crack cocaine significantly different from the externalities created by powder cocaine?

      Is a significant sentencing disparity therefore reasonable?Report

    • Nob:

      I agree that social programs are at least in part a response to negative externalities, and that regardless of social programs negative externalities will exist. My point instead is that social programs exacerbate existing externalities and create new ones out of previously harmless behavior.

      I of course agree with you that it’s an infringement of liberties to force someone to pay the costs of someone else’s choices. But ultimately that’s exactly what we’re doing the moment that we decide to have a sovereign government at all. Taxation is generally the least-intrusive way of doing this, of course.

      The trouble is that the more expansive we make the government’s security role, the more previously innocent behavior imposes externalities on others, and the more that government becomes a moral arbiter, largely depriving people of their moral agency. A non-judgmental and broad-based tax doesn’t have much to do with government being a moral arbiter, so its infringements on liberty are limited to the taxation itself; the effects on agency are thus limited to the effects on one’s available resources, which are ideally similar across the board.

      When we start claiming that those effects are so great as to themselves justify actually forcing people to make specific moral decisions, we are infringing on liberty in a new and different way.Report

      • Shorter me – adding a harsher infringement of liberty to a mild infringement of liberty does not increase liberty.Report

      • My point is more “previously innocent activity” when it comes to sin taxes are not innocent activities. Smoking for example is the biggest one that comes in.

        The assumption that activities are “harmless” or “innocent” is what troubles me when people rail against things like sin taxes as an “infringement of liberty.”

        They’re not innocent activities, and sin taxes as targeted taxation against the externalities generated by specific actions which the government then goes around correcting isn’t an infringement on liberty at all. It is rather reasserting proper responsibility and cost shouldering to people who actually generate the additional cost, rather than on people who are forced to (due to the lack of redress structure) shoulder the additional burden.

        Shorter me – “Externalities exist regardless of government or social programs. To require them to be accounted for is not an infringement on liberty.”Report

    • Avatar Sam M in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      “there’s a bit of a logical leap being made here by the post that somehow forcing people to pay the costs of the externalities (through social programs, for example) is somehow an infringement of their choices.”

      But there is also a huge logical leap in taking the “average” externality and charging that fee for every single instance of consumption. If I have one single beer my entire life, or even one every day, there is NO externality involving crime or health. And yet I pay the fee.

      And the fact of the matter is, almost all people who drink do so responsibly.

      Is this not similar to saying that the average man commits some percentage of a murder, on average, over the course of his life, and forcing him to spend a corresponding percetnage of a life sentence in prison for it?

      On average, all murders would be “paid for.” But non-murderers would be serving sentences for crimes they do not commit. And murderers would be… getting away with murder.

      Why not actually catch people commiting crimes realted to alcohol use and,m you know, punishing them for those crimes?Report

  4. So Mark, what is your attitude toward the revenues that are generated by a Pigou tax? Should they just go to insurance companies to offset the costs imposed by problem drinkers? Or just government activities that are legitimate by your lights?Report

    • Avatar Dave in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Wouldn’t those costs already be reflected in the premiums that are charged by insurance companies?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Dave says:

        Right, paid by all the customers. My hope was that they would return it via lower premiums, oh well…

        Alternatively it could just be directly returned to consumers as tax relief. (Using it for anything more progressive than that would seemingly constitute a social program and thus violate the terms on which Mark okay’d it, I think…)Report

    • A good question and I’m not sure I have a good answer. I suppose it depends on the activity, but to the extent possible (as long as we’re being idealistic), I’d probably prefer that it go to some sort of victim’s fund or equivalent thereof. When you get to taxation of carbon, though, I’m at a loss. Potentially, though, I could probably be amenable to a pretty wide range of possibilities.Report

  5. Hey, wanna see something eye-popping? Yglesias mentioned some Reihan Tweeting, so I went to see what he had to say:

    http://twitter.com/reihansalam/status/11032563102

    Separately, I was also trying to think where I might think about putting the tax if i was gonna propose this – trying to decide whether I could get to a full doubling. A quintupling I had not considered, I will admit. I don’t think I can get there.Report

  6. Avatar Trumwill says:

    Very good points, Mark. I got into a debate with my former boss on the subject and I wish I had read your comment before getting into it as you put it much more succinctly than I did. Arguing on one hand that we’re responsible for the welfare of others and then arguing that because we’re responsible than we have the right to dictate the terms of their life creates an exceptional argument against being responsible for their welfare in the first place.

    To look at this in the context of the private sector, I appreciate that when I have a job my employer pays a portion of my health insurance. However, if my employer then says “Since we’re paying for insurance, we are going to force you to sign an affadavit saying that you will not smoke and will not gain weight” then I am going to reconsider either (a) getting insurance through this company or (b) working for this company at all. Easier to do with an employer than with a government.

    I’m not arguing from a libertarian perspective here as I do support a safety net and I support increased government involvement in health care. However, by supporting things things, I know that I am not just agreeing to support their needs but also to support their lifestyle as they choose to live it.

    This isn’t to say that we cannot try to modify behavior through sin taxation and whatnot. I just don’t think that externalities on the government’s financial support is a good reason to do so. If anything, I consider the intangible externalities to be just as important as the financial ones. Whether the government is taking care of our health care or general welfare or not, alcoholism is bad for the economy and bad for local and greater American community. Smoking, likewise, is bad for the public at large even if someone can successfully argue that the government saves money because they die sooner and collect less in social security and medicare.

    When push comes to shove, I think a lot more people agree with me on this than would like to admit. It’s unpopular to say that some lifestyle choices are less legitimate than others and ought to be treated so, so we try to come up with objective reasons to do what we want to do anyway. Fortunately, since I’m not running for office and since Trumwill is not my actual name, I can be more straightforward with my intentions.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

      I agree almost wholeheartedly with every word. The only thing I don’t understand is if you think it’s okay for the government to take on responsibility for some peoples’ health care, and if you think it’s okay for the government to encourage changes in consumption by influencing prices that raise revenues, and if you think it’s okay for them to do that because it is good for the health of the people whose behaviors are changed by those encouragements,consume in ways that make them less healthy, and if those effects on health in fact help contain the costs to the government in providing (if perhaps only in part) for their health care needs, then why can you not support their taking those actions for that last reason in addition to the inherent reason that what they would otherwise do is “bad” for them or others? Is it just because it is a logical circle – ‘we took responsibility for you, therefore we’ll try to guide you behavior’? But ‘we just think your behavior is “bad” or “costly (though it’s not the cost to us [the gov’t] we’re concerned about, though it exists’ is more defensible? I fail to see how a government has a more legitimate interest in saying what is “bad” for people or concerning itself with what is costly among private citizens and taking action pursuant to that than it does taking the same action pursuant to concern about costs incurred to it as a result of the behavior, if having taken responsibility for those costs was a legitimate action on its part.

      I’d direct the same question to Mark.Report

      • If they go out looking for things that they could tax that are legitimately bad for us if we do too much and cause bad things for others, and that are costly amongst the people, but they did this because they wanted to control costs in a public health system you support — but they only ever axed things that were truly “bad,” would that be okay? I’d certainly listen to an argument that the constant pressure from the real motivation onto the other definition would cause the circle of costly-but-not-taxable behaviors to shrink to smaller than it would be if they never had the need to control the public costs.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew says:

          That would preferable, but it still leaves me with this sort of sense of things: “The government collects money from the population and then gives the money back to the population but it can use the collection and dispersion of money as a justification to modify the behavior of the population on the basis that the government is giving the money it took from them back to them.”

          There is an argument that for net beneficiaries that this may be worthwhile because you’re on net getting more money from the government than you put in. But when you’re applying it to the whole population, there’s a sort of collective “We’re giving the money back to you (in the form of services) minus what it costs us to administer it, but there are strings attached. You have to earn it through good behavior. Or we’re going to take more back from you.”

          (I don’t know how successfully I’m conveying the ideas bouncing around in my head. Being sick in bed allows one to do more surfing, but may muddle my mind a bit and get in the way of clearer communication.)Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

            No, I get you. I absolutely agree I wouldn’t want this spreading out into areas where there isn’t real harm, where just costs are the indicator. I just think where the harm is there, the cost control is also a legitimate reason.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew says:

              There’s a lot of overlap between “harm” and “costs the government money”, but there are times when there is not. We have four scenarios:

              Neither harm nor cost: Trumwill says “no government interference”
              Harm, but no cost: Trumwill says “maybe government interference”
              Cost, but no harm: Trumwill says “no interference”
              Harm and cost: Trumwill says “maybe interference”

              So whether I could support interference or not depends entirely on the harm variable. By lending legitimacy to the cost variable, in the only scenario where it makes any sort of difference, the third, it legitimizes interference I don’t want. If we argue that cost should be an issue only where harm is also an issue, it provides an argument I don’t need. It feels to me that it would be less than entirely honest for me to say “Oh, well cost also matters” when cost only factors in when combined with a controlling variable.

              It’s sort of like someone that opposes homosexuality on religious grounds pointing to HIV as a reason for objecting to homosexual behavior.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

                I’d go further and make distinctions between “harming oneself” and “harming others”.

                It’s appropriate to intervene before someone harms another.

                Before someone harms himself (or herself)? Well…Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

                I would say that harm does not occur in a void and is contagious, but you make a fair point. While I don’t believe harm to oneself or harm to others invites government intervention (the vast majority of harm simply cannot be legislated, and another chunk should not be), I do believe that it can.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

                The example foremost in my head was “smoking”.

                Other examples might be:
                Suicide (always a tricky issue)
                Drugs
                Salt
                Riding a motorcycle without a helmetReport

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

                Smokers introduce future smokers to cigarettes or otherwise provide profit for the tobacco industry which then advertises to others. That’s what I meant by “contagious” (I was actually thinking of smoking when I wrote that). Suicide leaves children fatherless, parents childless, and so on. Driving without a motorcycle helmet makes it more likely that someone accidentally kills you which can cause psychological and legal problems for others. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.

                Just to be clear, I am not saying that all of the above should banned or taxed or whatever. Merely that the ways we hurt ourselves – or make ourselves vulnerable – do not just affect us.

                Your point remains a good one, though, that there is a distinction between those actions that actively hurt others and those that passively do so. While I do maintain that self-harm does not occur in a vacuum, it’s not the primary basis by which I would be willing to support laws that limit freedom.Report

              • Avatar Sam M in reply to Jaybird says:

                But as we’ve seen with the obesity question, there is no real distinction between harming yourself and harming others. The whole idea that obesity is an “epidemic” or “socially linked” means that people ahve no real agency. You’re not fat because you eat too many cream pies. You are too fat because you live in Huntington, WV. So it’s not your fault, see?Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Sam M says:

                Or it means that there is a spectrum between “things that are within our power” all the way to “things that are outside our power” with varying degrees of “things that are influenced by our surroundings” in between.Report

              • Avatar Sam M in reply to Trumwill says:

                I would have agreed with you even a few short years ago. But it seems pretty clear that the slope was far slipperier than anyone expected. So now it’s ILLEGAL for me to buy a muffin made with Crisco in NYC. Not discouraged or frowned upon. ILLEGAL. And in most places, it’s ILLEGAL for a guy who runs a bar to allow me to smoke in it, because my smoking might endanger him. Even if he’s willing to accept that danger. Even if he SMOKES. Everything affects everyone to some extent, and regulators have proven they are willing to intervene in any instance that allows them to make some money and/or impact the cause du jour.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

                So whether I could support interference or not depends entirely on the harm variable.

                From your list, it seems that’s not the case – harm but no cost, you still say no interference. They’re simply co-necessary. I agree with you, btw. The only reason I was arguing for the cost side here was because the instance was already specified — booze — and it was determined through normal processes the harm was there (I think that was the justification fot most liquor taxes); I was saying where that’s the case and the costs have become evident for research, owning up to that justification is also legitimate (and perhaps an argument for a raise if one is proposed).Report

              • Oh, I’m sorry I misread — harm but no cost, you say “maybe.” I don’t think I agree, though obviously directly harming other people obviously in most instances is and should be illegal. The real question is when the cost becomes the harm. In other words, I’d support anyones right to drink Drano, as long as they’re not taken to the hospital and are insured by my insurance company or are publicly insured. But if you make someone else drink Drano, you should go to prison for a very long time.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew says:

                By “harm” I generally mean “harm to oneself”, though I wasn’t very clear on that. When it’s “harm to others” I am more inclined to support government intervention. Even then, there are all sorts of harm-to-others that the government does not and cannot legislate, but it does have a broader mandate to intervene where it can.

                As to when it’s “harm to others in the form of cost”, that’s where I get skittish. I mean, it’s one thing when someone is a net beneficiary and are taking what can best be classified as a “handout”. It’s another when they are automatically enrolled in a program where they pay in and take out.

                Enrolling in an insurance program is voluntary. You put resources in and you take resources out. If an insurance program says (and has the power to say) “Hey, no Draino allowed,” then it’s up to you as to whether or not that’s a worthwhile sacrifice to make for coverage.

                Likewise, accepting government assistance in the form of Medicaid is also a choice. Here I am also a little reluctant for the government to attach strings (on the basis of cost), but I am certainly more open to it. Yeah, your tax money goes towards paying for Medicaid in the abstract sense, but if you’re on Medicaid it can be assumed that you’re not able to pay in all that much.

                Medicare, though, is a different matter. You are required to pay in and the method by which you pay in is not abstract. The deal is that you pay in and you are due benefits. Sure, as with Medicaid you can refrain from accepting getting back what you put in… but am I out in right field by suggesting that this is something different than a case where someone is getting benefits that they did not (presumably because they could not) pay in to? If you don’t want to abide by an insurance company’s restrictions, you can opt out. The only way to opt out of Medicare restrictions is to oppose the system.

                If we want the government to offer Medicare-like benefits to more people, wherein everybody pays in and everybody takes out, this is dicey territory. This makes more convincing conservative arguments that government-subsidized health insurance is about control. Or very easily can be about that. At the very least, you’re making it much, much easier for the government to justify interfering with your life. Now, as I’ve said I don’t have a problem with a degree of government interference on the basis of preventing harm. But allowing the government to do it on the basis that they have a vested financial interest in your behavior opens that door very, very wide. It justifies a much wider array of interventions. It makes conservative and libertarian arguments that this really is about freedom less unconvincing.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

                My understanding is that there are parts of Medicare that you can buy into or not, there are parts that are automatic enrollment at a certain age with no premium due, or else means-tested premiums (correct me if I am wrong). I don’t believe the poor elderly are stuck with Medicaid, though I could be wrong about that.

                As I have said, I agree with the concern that a cost justification can creep; I support merely being clear that that justification has some bearing if we also consider the behavior in question legitimately harmful. I understand a view that any acknowledgement that a government cost concern underlies such a tax opens up that justification for taxes on non-harmful behaviors, but from a philosophical perspectivw my view is that explicitly limiting it to when both are present is a satisfactory response.

                On the question of the propaganda loss of such an admission, as long as we are talking merely about reasonable taxes that will be individually considered by legislatures (not by committees empowered by just one law such as the ACA or some such), my feeling is that that outcome actually serves to illustrate how overblown those claims are. Theres are individual questions that will be addressed separately (at least that is all I would ever consider supporting), and nowhere would I support onerous taxes on any previously untaxed activity that would amount effectively to prohibition. So it seemsto me to matter what the proposal is; to you you’d just rather not acknowledge any legitimate government interest in ever seeking to influence behaviors out of cost concern even if it expressly limited to individually considered modest tax actions. As a philosophical position I can understand that, but from a PR standpoint I think the limitations I describe would probably be quite acceptable to people who do not come at this from a pure ideological standpoint (and from that standpoint says that gov’t accepting responsibility will lead inexorably to such controls, and so shouldn’t be done; we’ll never satisfy that argument. Showing that what they warn of, if it were to come to pass, would actually look like something very reasonable is in my view the best way to counter the argument).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

                “even if it expressly limited to individually considered modest tax actions”
                …which are simultaneously supported by a representative on a harm or “sin” basis.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill says:

                Bah! Representative majority.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I was wondering if someone was going to ask that :).

        In my view, it short-circuits the argument and can be used to justify any behavior that costs the government money. I would rather behavior-modification laws focus on the nature of the behavior, the damage it does to the person participating in that behavior, and the damage it does to the people around the participant. And then I think that action should be taken or not taken based on these things (as well as the costs of enforcement including black-market potential) rather than based on what it’s costing the government.

        To go back to the private sector example, if a company uses health insurance as a justification to prevent me from smoking, they can just as easily use it to prevent me from participating in sports that might get me injured. They can use it for anything that might hurt their bottom line, even if they are generally harmless or even positive activities. On the other hand, if they prohibit smoking because they believe it is a filthy habit or because the company president’s sister died of lung cancer, I don’t have to worry about flag football or riding a motorcycle to work.

        Further, it deprives those that oppose a safety net of a crucial argument, which is that economic assistance begets government intrusion of your personal lives because of the inherent justification. If we simply approach government intrusion as its own distinct thing, we can approach economic assistance and government intrusion on their own merits.

        (I realize that “government control” and “government intrusion” are loaded phrases. I don’t mean them in the negative sense. I just can’t figure out a better way to put it.)Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

          Yes. I’ve heard the argument given that people who receive welfare payments ought be subject to random drug testing.

          I know what arguments *I* give against this line of argument but, hey, I’m crazy.

          I don’t understand why statists find it so easy to draw the line where they do when they say “no, of course not”.Report

          • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

            There’s an argument to be made that net beneficiaries have greater obligations than the public at large, though that’s dicey terrain. I got into a debate recently about whether being on welfare should limit your reproductive choices (ie a condition attached to it that you cannot have more children). The idea being that he who pays the piper calls the tune. However, you could use that argument to say, for instance, if you’re on welfare you do not have the right to speak against the government. It’s not a very long step from there to make the point that everybody is on the government dole in some form or fashion. If you want the right to speak your mind, that’s fine, but don’t expect the government to spend the tax dollars it took from you on you.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

            I only said I thought you sounded crazy, for using the logic of prohibition to argue against mere taxation.Report

      • Well, I would disagree with Trumwill on the notion of encouraging changes in consumption because it’s good for people’s health being a worthwhile government endeavor. Instead, my willingness to support such consumption taxes is limited to things that impose a direct negative externality on people around them that cannot readily be resolved via mutual consent. So, I’m probably not in favor of such taxes on, say, cigarettes, whose externalities can largely be resolved by private agreement. But booze has this bad tendency to lower inhibitions in a way that leads to strangers being killed by drunk drivers or lots property damage to complete strangers in the middle of the night when no one’s around (I went to college, y’know!). Since there’s no one to know whether a dude’s buying that six pack to watch the ball game on his couch or whether he’s buying it so he can have some road sodas before he heads home, and since there’s no opportunity for the person using the crosswalk to prevent from being hit, I figure a Pigou tax is the least intrusive way of socially insuring against the latter, at least as long as it’s limited to just that. If we start raising it because we want more people to be healthy, and alcohol is unhealthy……that’s where you lose me. It’s not government’s role to tell people what’s best for them, personally. Government is not an arbiter of personal morality; it’s a set of rules to enable its citizens to make their own moral decisions.Report

        • That’s like the inverse of Trumwill’s argument, exceptReport

          • oops. Except you both aren’t on board with the action stemming from a gov’t’s having taken on a cost obligation affected by that behavior.

            I buy that, but I just think where the overlap between your two accepted domains also overlaps with cost savings, I don’t really see any reason to split hairs about it.Report

            • As a practical matter, the difference may not matter much – some smart Congressman can always stand up there and say “no, we’re not doing this to save costs, we’re just doing it because we’ve realized that demon rum hurts communities even more than we once thought.” So you’re never going to adequately enforce such a limit.

              But in other ways, the difference can be huge. When you add cost-saving to the rationale, though, the sky’s the limit – the higher the tax, the more the savings. You can thus make it so high in fact as to work a de facto prohibition on the lower classes. If, on the other hand, the goal of the tax is to increase revenue, then the government has a pretty strong incentive to actively encourage the activity or to find new and more intrusive ways of maximizing its collection of the tax (think shortened yellow lights, which actually qualify as both these problems).

              One should never forget that the government is, in and of itself, an interest group, too.Report

              • I share the concern. I had this discussion teed up in my mind purely in terms of the booze tax. The reason I was willing to say that the cost issue was legitimate in this case was because we were talking about a “sin” or “harm” tax that is already on the books based on whatever the questions were that went into that determination pre-HCR law. Though, the bulk of the health care cost liabilities the government now has it also had before last week. In any case, I only meant to defend the increase in that tax on those grounds — not new taxes (I don’t recall my position on the sugar-soda tax, though I’d point out that was a NYC municipal issue). I don’t propose adding the entire class of things that the gov’t could contrive to tax in order to control health costs to my justification — I only mean to say that that motivation is legitimate where there is also a harm argument that the public is on board with independently. I’d like to say that I think the public would respond strongly if it began to detect a trend of proposals for special taxes on things they don’t regard as legitimately harmful justified purely on cost-to-gov’t-health-programs grounds. When the harm argument is likely to be there, the (gov’t) cost argument (or at least reality) likely will be too, but I might even be willing to say that they both need to be there for my support (a sin tax on, say, pornography might not meet this requirement).

                Another question occurs to me about your view: do you have a rubric for determining when a harm would be seen as legitimate for a Pigou tax you could support? Could it in many cases be just the same harm that someone concerned about gov’t health expenditures might propose a tax over? Where is the line drawn between legitimate harm and pure cost concern? Or is even pure cost concern — out into the realm of unharmful activities — potentially a legitimate reason for you to support a tax (though of course likely not in the event), simply so long as it doesn’t originate in concern over liabilities to gov’t resulting from having accepted responsibility for some people’s health costs (ie old age, where the costs resulting from most such cost-inducing behaviors will be incurred)?

                You say that the expansion of public interest in previously private activites is a strong reason to be wary of gov’t responsibility for health. But you also say you support a social safety net; and Medicare has been on the books since 1965. Medicare seems like the program where this dynamic will always the greatest effect on gov’t liabilities (the new law merely mandates coverage for mostly healthy poeple, and distributes subsidies based on income, not cost). What is your position on Medicare, and if it is support (even Paul Ryan-style support) how do you square it with refusal to support reasonable taxes on cost-incurring behaviors because of its revenue needswhere but only where you would also support a Pigou tax on general harm/cost grounds. Do you really think that making that concession opens a theoretical cost justification up for any behavior the government deems costly? It seems like this ignores the power of the public’s desire to protect their liberty.Report

              • (And, btw, I agree with you on the argument referenced in the first sentence of the last paragraph, ie that it is a strong argument. It’s just that that responsibility has been on the books since 1965, and to use that argument is to raise the question i go on to ask in the rest of the paragraph. Cheers!)Report

        • I still often grapple with the notion that “government isn’t an arbiter of morality” because then it brings up a very serious problem in a mass media culture.

          Should corporations be the arbiter of A. moral behavior, B. consumption preferences and as a consequence C. what society accepts as acceptable behavior? Particularly since their main motive is to increase consumption of their particular good.

          I know we’d all love to have a market where perfect information reigned and people made choices based on rational, reasoned weighing of the pros and cons of consuming a product, but let’s be honest: this simply doesn’t happen except in a small number of cases.

          For example: Would using the income from cigarette taxes to fund anti-marketing campaigns by the government be acceptable? How about from alcohol taxes to counter beer ads?Report

  7. Avatar Sam M says:

    I always wondered what would happen to law enforcement and penalties if we removed “fines” from the mix. IN other words, what would happen if we made it illegal for government to collect things that governments can use? Instead, what if we went back to a system of marchall punishments, like the stockades? Or maybe that’s too prone to abuse, a la caning. Get caught speeding? You have to do detention: For one day, you have to take off work and sit in a room and be quiet. You lose money because of work. But the goverment doesn’t get the money. Your company exceeds it’s cap and trade limit? The CEO has to run on a treadmill for nine hours and give up golf for a month.

    I am less concerend with the creative punishments than I am with the idea of removing the incentive for governments to overregulate or overpunish. How many speeding tickets would state troopers hand out if it didn’t add to state coffers? Some, presumably. But fewer.

    Or still collect fines, but have a massive lottery with the takings once a year, designed to zero out the balance.

    I bet the government all of a sudden would care a lot less about your wasteline and your driving habits and all kinds of other things.Report

  8. One of the good things about growing up in and living in the south is that we know how to make moonshine.

    We might hafta smuggle in the sugar, but we ain’t payin’ no exorbitant price fer likker.Report

  9. Avatar Lyle says:

    But sin taxes are better than the early 20th century alternative of prohibition. Its actually a market based solution, change the price and behavior will change with it. As noted by Mike above there are limits to how far sin taxes will go due to smuggling and the ability in many cases to do it yourself. A lot of these issues are really facing the issue that most humans are IMHO depressed most of the time, and that methods are sought to hide from the real world. (See Thoreau who said what can be interpreted to say that the mass of men are depressed, desperation is close to depression) Partly its an issue that we say that there is not a right to exit this life on demand, I sometimes wonder what a more asian attitude for suicide would mean for our society. (The attitude that if you screw it up badly enough suicide is an acceptable way out)Report

  10. Avatar Sam M says:

    “But sin taxes are better than the early 20th century alternative of prohibition. Its actually a market based solution, change the price and behavior will change with it.”

    Another alternative is to not care if someone drinks a six pack of beer, and to make no effort to make him not do so. Then when someone drinks a 30-pack instead of a six pack and wrecks his car into a telephone pole… arrest him for it.Report

  11. I will say that, sleeping on it, the arguments for increasing the alcohol tax became less strong, based no problems of implementation and incidence. It strikes me that the people who really would get hit hardest are those who tend to throw lots of parties for which they buy large amounts of alcohol and distribute it to many guests in moderate amounts. And we wouldn’t want that!Report

  12. The fact is that people are going to take their pleasures and government will have very little control over that — People will find a way to thwart government control of their personal pleasures. I can’t think of anything more egregiously arrogant and hypocritical than a bunch of fat, drunk, bed-hopping politicians trying to nudge or coerce people into lifestyles they think are healthy and good for society.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      While it’s true that some people will “take their pleasures” regardless of whether the government attempts to control it or not, the number of people that will is not a fixed number. If the government can limit availability and/or drive up costs, fewer people will indulge.

      Whether the reduction in indulgence is worth the costs of enforcement and the social costs that enforcement can incur (ie black market crime) is something of a different matter and can vary greatly from one indulgence to another.Report

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