Sin Taxes, Nanny States and the Rejection of Personal Autonomy

A few weeks ago, as my state legislature was gearing up to steal more of our personal liberty pass sensible legislation that benefits the greater good, I saw a tweet roll by from a state legislator in favor of her pet bill – banning smoking in cars while children were inside the car. This tweet stated something to the effect that, “It’s not nanny state legislation! It’s to protect the kids!” It struck me funny that this legislator could not even wrap her head around the concept of the nanny state enough to see that her populist bill could lead to more rejection of personal responsibility by the state.

Of course, Oregon is famous for nanny state bills. When Mayor Bloomberg announced recently that he wanted to ban styrofoam in New York City, many were up in arms about how crazy that sounded, but I just chuckled to myself. After all, it’s been banned in Portland since the 90s. And we’re just getting started with these types of government-knows-better laws. According to the Cascade Policy Institute, we’ve become “addicted to sin taxes”, despite their obvious ineffectiveness:

Now, a provocative new study challenges the whole concept of sin taxes, finding that they “not only do little to limit the use of ‘bad’ products, they do nothing to reduce societal costs.” Most remarkably, the study “demonstrates that those shockingly large estimates of the costs that the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and fat supposedly impose on society have little basis in reality.”

Sin taxes also hit the poor harder than the rich. That’s because products like tobacco and state lotteries are disproportionately purchased by lower income people.

Sin taxes also give governments “a financial incentive to foster the very vices they profess to despise.” This may explain why, out of the more than one billion dollars Oregon has received to date from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and the tobacco companies, “not one penny has gone to tobacco prevention.”

So why do legislators, and those who continue to reelect them and their ilk, continue to look favorably on a paternalistic government to make decisions for us? After all, aren’t we a nation of rugged individualists who would rather go our own way than to have some busybody interfering with our lives?

Increasingly, it seems, we are rejecting that notion and opting for more government protections – giving up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, as Ben Franklin put it.

Now, there’s a new book out to give academic cover to this notion. Against Autonomy, Justifying Coercive Paternalism, published last year by Cambridge University Press, will run you a cool $77.71 on Amazon (discounted from the cover price of $95). The book description reads:

Since Mill’s seminal work On Liberty, philosophers and political theorists have accepted that we should respect the decisions of individual agents when those decisions affect no one other than themselves. Indeed, to respect autonomy is often understood to be the chief way to bear witness to the intrinsic value of persons. In this book, Sarah Conly rejects the idea of autonomy as inviolable. Drawing on sources from behavioural economics and social psychology, she argues that we are so often irrational in making our decisions that our autonomous choices often undercut the achievement of our own goals. Thus in many cases it would advance our goals more effectively if government were to prevent us from acting in accordance with our decisions. Her argument challenges widely held views of moral agency, democratic values and the public/private distinction, and will interest readers in ethics, political philosophy, political theory and philosophy of law.

So the next time some legislator or some leftist blogger or someone you’re engaged with in debate scoffs at the notion that government wants to control your life (and inevitably deflects to a variation on “It’s for the children!™”), point them to this book. There is always an aspect of control in any law, but never moreso than in those laws written to protect us from our own personal decisions.

And control is exactly what they want.