I celebrate when my friends on the left stumble into economic insights.
For instance, many of them sound like Milton Friedman when they pontificate in favor of higher tobacco taxes because they want people to smoke fewer cigarettes.
As a libertarian, I don’t think it’s government’s job to control our private lives, but I applaud when people understand that higher taxes on something will lead to less of that thing.
I get frustrated, of course, that they don’t apply that insight in other areas.
After all, if higher taxes on tobacco leads to less smoking, surely it is true that higher taxes on employment leads to less work.
Or less investment, less innovation, less entrepreneurship, etc, etc.
Let’s consider a new example of how this works in the case of sin taxes.
The New York Times has an article by Ted Alcorn about whether higher taxes on alcohol are an appropriate way of dealing with the damage caused by excessive drinking.
Here are some excerpts.
Oregon also has among the highest prevalence of problem drinking in the country. Last year, 2,153 residents died of causes attributed to alcohol, according to the Oregon Health Authority — more than twice the number of people killed by methamphetamines, heroin and fentanyl combined. …policies that experts consider most effective at curbing excessive drinking have been ignored. For example, even as alcohol-related deaths soared to record highs in the last few years, alcohol taxes have fallen to the lowest rates in a generation. …The U.S. Community Preventive Services Task Force, an independent group of experts, has endorsed measures to deter excess drinking, including raising the price of alcohol. …One way that governments can influence the price of alcohol is by taxing its producers or sellers, who pass the cost on to consumers. This is comparable to taxes on tobacco, which scores of studies show to be a powerful tool for reducing smoking. A large body of evidence shows that higher alcohol taxes are associated with less excessive drinking and lower rates of disease and injury deaths.
This all sounds reasonable.
Raise taxes and you save lives.
But it’s not that simple, as J.D. Tuccille explained in Reason a few years ago.
…you don’t need an outright ban on alcohol to fuel the production of bathtub gin and its equivalents. A new report shows that the same result has been achieved in many countries through the imposition of excessively high taxes… World Health Organization (WHO) research, published in 2014 (PDF), …”illicit and informally produced alcohol accounts for nearly a quarter of the alcohol consumed globally.” …What’s the attraction of drinking the local equivalent of bathtub gin when commercially produced products are widely available? “Unrecorded alcoholic beverages are generally less costly than recorded alcohol,” WHO dryly acknowledged in 2014. The IARD report goes into a bit more detail as to why that might be, noting that “these beverages are untaxed and outside of regulated production that can increase cost,” which means there “is often a significant price difference between illicit and legitimate products, driving demand.”
In other words, governments can impose lots of taxes on alcohol, but one consequence is to encourage the black market.
My two cents on this issues is that all taxes should be low, including so-called sin taxes. That is not because I’m oblivious to the damage of drinking, smoking, drugs, or sugar.
My opposition is driven by three factors.
- I don’t want politicians having more money to waste.
- Sin taxes will encourage problematic black markets..
- People should have the freedom to make dumb choices.
I’ll close by addressing a common counter-argument, which is that people who make dumb choices can impose costs on the rest of society.
But if people drive while drunk or stoned, focus on penalizing the people who make those bad choices so that they will have an incentive for more responsible behavior.
And if smokers and gluttons impose high costs on government health programs, maybe that’s yet another reason for restoring free markets in health care.
Simply stated, the answer almost always is less government rather than more government.
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