It's So Obvious - Sin Taxes Will Solve All Our Problems! (Or Something)

Erika Johnsen

7/25/2011 8:55:00 AM - Erika Johnsen

"WHAT will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits?" asks Mark Bittman in his Sunday NYT op-ed entitled, "Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables." WHY don't you worry about your own eating habits and stop trying to prescribe a diet for everybody else? Head, meet desk.

Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available. ...

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

Summary: You are too stupid to know what to eat, and we will reform you if we literally have to shove it down your throat. Private companies are just greedy profit-seekers. Big Brother knows best. The end.

Government agencies (much like businesses) are merely bureaucracies made up of rationally self-interested individuals operating under imperfect knowledge. The government is not a selfless, incorruptible, efficient machine with the keys to all knowledge under the sun. Private businesses cannot coerce people into buying their product, they merely rise to meet a demand and allow people to choose what they like. Government agencies, on the other hand, presume to know best and can force people to act according to whatever mandate is in vogue.

If you choose to live on a diet consisting of only chips, soda, and candy, you know perfectly well that that is not a recipe for a long life of robust health and energy. That is your choice, and you will have to deal with the consequences later. Ohhhh, wait - enter Obamacare. When people become financially liable for the health of their neighbors, what people choose to eat does become a public concern. Bad ideas, all around.

"[P]ublic health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit." No. Just no. Neither health nor water treatment nor mass transit fall under the umbrella of 'the general welfare,' as all of these are vastly more efficiently managed by the private sector. Mr. Bittman argues that chronic "lifestyle" diseases "for the first time in history kill more people than communicable ones." But that's mainly because the genius of private sector-fueled investment and innovation in health care have basically eradicated death by communicable disease in America. People are living much longer lives, and you have to eventually die of something.

Mr. Bittman entertains visions of slender, happy, salad-eating communities jogging and biking to their daily activities, and hey, it sounds great! But you cannot count on big government to orchestrate a utopia - just a big, hot mess. The evidence? The government is subsidizing starchy, sugary junk foods right now - corn subsidies make corn syrup (a staple in most junk foods) much less expensive than it would be standing on its own, as well as contributing to rising food prices in general. So, in fact, the government may be partially responsible for our current obesity epidemic - not their original intention, of course, but just one of the many neighborhood effects that comes from trying to legislate virtue.