Role of Government is to Protect Rights, Not Manage Behavior

role of governmentThe usual suspects, Vermont statists, are at it again. They are seeking to manage the behavior of citizens in a direction that they deem to be “better” and to penalize those who do not fall in line.

This latest assault is the renewal of a proposal to impose a 2 cent per ounce tax on beverages that contain added sugar such as soda and sports drinks. Based on prices at a local minimart, this would result in about a 27% increase in the cost of a bottle of soda. Supporters of the law claim that it is needed to help reduce the incidence of obesity, which is one of the drivers of higher health care costs. They claim that such taxes would be as successful in reducing obesity as those on tobacco have been on reducing smoking. They point out that everyone knows that when you tax something you get less of it. (Funny they do not bring up this argument when they want to raise income or capital gains taxes, but that is a post for another day.)

Contrary to what the supporters claim, such taxes are unlikely to achieve the predicted results.  Taxes on tobacco do appear to have reduced the number of people who smoke but there are differences between tobacco and sugary drinks.  One glaring example is the existence of products that can be substituted for the one being taxed. While there are, or were, no substitutes for tobacco products, there are many substitutes for sweetened beverages that will not be affected by the tax. Drinks such as fruit juices and milk products, sweetened or not, may contain more nutrients than soda but as far as obesity goes they are just as bad or, in the case of sweetened full fat dairy drinks, likely worse. As the Harvard School of Public Health’s website points out:

Fruit juice is not a better option.  Even though it has more nutrients, it contains as much sugar (though from naturally occurring fruit sugars rather than added sugar) and calories as soft drinks.

So what?

Even if the taxes did actually have the predicted effect of reducing obesity, my question would be, “So what?” It simply is not the proper role of the government to nudge, let alone compel by force, and taxes are force, individuals  to act in a way that the government approves of. Especially those who are not violating the rights of others. It does not matter for what reason it is being done nor what behavior we are being nudged towards or away from.

In the United States, the Declaration of Independence lays out what the proper role of government is: to protect each individual’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (I would add property to this list as well. Just try to pursue happiness or even live if you do not have the right to keep and use the property you acquire, including the money you earn.) The means by which the government protects these rights is by removing the initiation of force from society and maintaining a monopoly on it’s retaliatory use against those who do initiate it, whether that use is the violence or fraud of a criminal or the attacks of foreign enemies. In other words, they only initiate force against those who are violating the rights of others.

Rather than protecting individual rights, with this tax the government is in fact violating them. Contrary to the principles of the proper role of government, they are initiating force against those who have not violated the rights of anyone. Those who consume sugary drinks are not violating the anyone’s rights, even if they consume them to excess such that they damage their health. To those who might claim that obesity increases health care costs for some individuals and those costs would fall on society, violating our rights in the process, I would ask another question. Why? Why should I be responsible for the poor choices of another, or another be responsible for mine?

Contrary to what those in government apparently think, we are all capable of making our own choices and should be left alone to deal with the consequences of those choices, good or bad. These taxes sacrifice the rational, those who consume such beverages in moderation or in pursuit of values that require concentrated energy (e.g. athletes), in favor of the irrational, those who consume enough to harm their health.

The proper role of government is to protect our rights to life and liberty, not tell us how to live our lives or curtail our liberty if we should act in ways they do not approve of.

5 thoughts on “Role of Government is to Protect Rights, Not Manage Behavior

  1. Larry Black (@LarryBlack10)

    You should check out the report that everyone’s favorite healthcare expert, Mr. Jonathan Gruber has been recorded (not sure if audio or video) saying that one way to help pay for Obamacare would be to tax people for poor dietary choices, i.e., a tax on overweight people, using a measurement similar to BMI.

    1. Patrick Black Post author

      I followed a link from the article on the Daily Caller to the actual essay. In the section where he suggests “what may be needed to address the obesity problem are direct taxes on body weight,” he makes the claim that this is already indirectly in place with employers able to charge more for their employees health insurance based on “health-related standards” and under Obamacare the percentage extra that could be charged goes from 20% to 30% and maybe higher. It is interesting that the law allows for this but prohibits insurance companies from charging different premiums based on health status.

      What worries me more in the essay is that Gruber has 0 problems with the government using its coercive power to modify the behavior of individuals in a direction which the government approves of. He states that there are two main arguments for such “six taxes,” both of which are addressed to some degree in my post:

      externalities – the behavior imposes costs on society, so society has the right to intervene
      internalities – people can harm themselves through the behavior so society should be able to limit the behavior

      When he discusses the main arguments against these types of taxes – he lists their regressive, punitive and paternalistic nature, and potential for unintended consequences – he never even mentions the idea, not even to dismiss it out of hand, that such behavior modification is outside the scope of proper government action.

      This goes to show that the idea that government has limits beyond which it should not act has basically eroded away to nothing among intellectuals. Such a development does not bode well for those who believe in individual rights and freedom.

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