The Soda Tax: Pop Goes Your Freedom

Taxes typically serve two purposes: to raise revenue, the most straightforward and the only one intended by the Constitution, and the more sinister purpose of shaping the behavior of others. This second use has been increasingly favored by progressives who are now using the term “nudge” to describe pushing people to do what they want by making the alternatives more expensive. Ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been the champion of this technique, aggressively pushing New Yorkers to stop smoking, stop eating trans fats and stop drinking sodas of 16 ounces or more.

The dangerous thing about this style of governance is that progressives appear, at long last, to have grasped the fundamental axiom of economics that people respond to incentives. Having repeatedly encountered resistance to their favored command and control techniques, they are now attempting to disguise their coercive efforts by claiming that they have some basis in capitalist thought. They are not forcing people to do anything, merely realigning incentives. But a tax to artificially raise the price of some good is not a free market approach, however much liberals try to couch it as such.

The latest of these attempts comes in the form of an excise tax on sodas. It is an idea that has been bandied about for some time, but the recent enactment of just such a tax in Mexico is fanning the flames of “nudge” economics in the United States once more. The nutrition police, egged on by the first lady’s increasingly insulting war on fat people, have decided that sodas are bad and we should not be allowed to enjoy them–at least not without paying a hefty surcharge.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick has attempted to enact such a tax through the state’s budget, and in Berkeley, California, the City Council has been proposing holding a referendum on soda taxes. While both of these efforts appear to have failed for the present, it is only a matter of time before the food police get their way. San Francisco residents, as ever leading the charge against liberty, will vote on a soda tax in November, and the mayor of New Haven is pushing for implementing the tax across Connecticut.

One of the most influential works of the great Austrian economist F. A. Hayek is called The Fatal Conceit, a title that refers to the progressive idea that some individual or group of individuals can somehow know what prices ought to be, what level of production is ideal and how much consumers should consume. The completely unrealistic nature of this delusion is readily visible, as we note that at the same time Congress wants to make sodas more expensive by taxing them, it also strives to make them cheaper by offering huge subsidies to producers of high fructose corn syrup, a key ingredient in almost all domestically produced sodas. Such inconsistent policy making should be sufficient to demonstrate that prices should not be left to the discretion of regulators.

Why is it anyone’s business how much soda we choose to drink? The stock answer is that, if you get sick and cannot pay your own bills, others will be saddled with the costs. We therefore have a right, nay an obligation, to push the population towards a reasonable standard of health.

It requires little imagination to carry this line of reasoning to its logical extreme. If government can push you to drink less soda for the common good, why can it not also push you to exercise, to watch less television or to, as Justice Scalia argued during the ObamaCare mandate hearings, eat more broccoli?

Under this environment, in which the state claims the right to control citizens’ health care decisions, the fact that so many are pushing for still further socialization of the health care system is stunning.

Just like children, admonished by their parents that “while you live under my roof, you follow my rules,” when we let government pick up the tab for us, we tacitly divest ourselves of the independence to govern our own lives. Only when we pay our own bills, when we bear the consequences of our own actions, can we be truly free to live our lives as we see fit. Government already punishes us for smoking and for drinking alcohol. Soda is just the next link in the chain of “unapproved” behavior decisions that must be made for us, for our own good.

Do we really want to remain children, forever submitting to whatever whims our protectors decide to impose on us, or is it time to grow up, move out and face the world as adults, standing on our own two legs? I may not be an eighteen year old rebel anymore, but I know which one I prefer.


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