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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The sin tax: a tax on your choice

    Nothing’s certain but death and taxes. If you live in America, there are even taxes on the things that can kill you.

    If you drink or smoke, you’ve noticed the sin tax in your favorite vice’s shelf price. But nonsmokers and nondrinkers beware: If you eat meat or fast food, drive a car, play video games, use the Internet, watch TV or have any other such “”naughty”” hobby, you too might soon be the target of the sin tax man. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is lobbying for a 10 cent per pound tax on all meat. The Sierra Club has lobbied in New Mexico for a tax on video games and televisions. In 2005, the mayor of Detroit proposed a 2 percent tax on fast food sales. These are all legal products used in legal activities. Why single them out for extra tax?

    Sin taxes, as they are commonly called, are a form of Pigovian tax. A Pigovian tax is a tax on a market activity that causes a negative externality (costs that fall on people unengaged in the activity), and is intended to offset the negative externality. Pigovian taxes also have the effect of discouraging “”bad”” behaviors by increasing the users’ cost of activity, an argument that has been made time and again by teetotalers and “”cradle-to-grave”” socialists who support the sin taxes.

    Our sin taxes in Arizona, however, aren’t purely Pigovian. Take, for instance, the tax on cigarettes: In addition to paying for the health expenses of smokers, the state tobacco tax funds health care programs for children and the poor. Tobacco’s negative externalities (increased healthcare costs for smokers and loss of productivity when smoking workers become sick) play a tenuous role in the programs funded by the tobacco tax. Sales tax disregarded, smokers end up paying for government services, unrelated to the taxed activity. In addition to being easy pickings for government income, the sin tax is a punishment for one’s choice.

    A tax applied to a narrow category of goods allows tidy sums of money to be made while denouncing the activity, all without actually declaring the act illegal. If the goal were to end alcohol abuse, alcohol would be prohibited.

    Alcohol once was illegal, but was re-legalized (and, of course, taxed) shortly after. If the goal really were to discourage smoking, tobacco would be declared illegal to possess – they’ve done it to other plants, and they could do it again. In reality, the goal is not to moderate these vices, but for Uncle Sam to get his slice of the cake. The politicians’ ideal sin tax is high enough to pay above and beyond the negative externality, but not so high that people will actually quit the vice in question. After all, it would be awfully inconvenient for a government that profits from these “”sin”” transactions to kill the goose laying golden eggs.

    Arizona has unreasonably high sin taxes (for instance, a tax of $2 per pack of cigarettes – the fourth highest in the country), which admittedly fund above and beyond the negative externalities brought on by smoking or drinking. The users of these products pay more than their fair share to the government. It is a slippery slope into state-regulated discrimination. Taxes have been used to discriminate before, like the Reconstruction-era “”poll taxes”” intended to keep blacks from voting. Taxes are being used now to discriminate against lifestyles – smoking and drinking especially. The sin tax could easily be levied on selected goods to tax certain consumers out their lifestyle (say, for instance, motorcyclists or energy-drink users). The tax is used to coerce people to modify their own behavior, which conveniently allows supporters to claim it’s the user’s choice whether or not to pay the tax (by choosing whether or not to buy what they want).

    Sin taxes, whether they’re on the books or on the ballots, threaten our freedom to live as we like. Our forefathers were outraged to the point of revolution by England’s tyranny, manifest in British taxes on sugar, textiles, coffee, wine, indigo, newspapers, playing cards, legal documents and imported goods. They demanded respect for their right to make legal choices without paying a tribute to do so. Now, we are faced with the prospect of sin taxes on booze, smokes, fast food, Internet access and other modern luxuries. We could quietly line the capitol’s coffers with nearly every purchase we make, but oughtn’t we put the foot down and demand our right to choose while we still have it?

    Mike Hathaway is a senior majoring in geography and Spanish and Portuguese. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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