A Misunderstanding

Or a non sequitur. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial was headlined thusly: Should There Be a Tax on Soda and Other Sugary Drinks? The subhead had this: Supporters say it is an effective way to cut obesity. Critics say the health benefits are far less than claimed.

The piece then proceeded to a debate between Kelly Brownell, Dean and Robert L Flowers Professor of Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and William Shughart II, J Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Jon M Huntsman School of Business, among other titles.

Both entirely missed fundamental point. The answer to the headline question can only be a resounding “No.” The debate was a waste of bandwidth and of newsprint and ink because it doesn’t matter whether taxing sodas is an effective way of curbing obesity.

As James Madison once said in the Third Congress about a related subject,

Mr Madison wished to relieve the sufferers, but was afraid of establishing a dangerous precedent, which might hereafter be perverted to the countenance of purposes very different from those of charity. He acknowledged, for his own part, that he could not undertake to lay his finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right of Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.

Charity of one sort, or charity of another sort, or simply the Federal government presuming to pressure us toward government’s definition of society, it’s all the same. And so it is with taxing as well as spending. Our tax code, in no way shape or form, should be used to conduct social engineering. Full stop.

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