Last week, voters in Santa Fe voted down a new tax on soda and other sugary beverages that would have added 24 cents to the cost of a can of soda. The vote failed 58% to 42%. Score it as freedom one, nanny state zero. By itself, not a major issue, but symbolic of the larger issue of the proper role of government.
Capitalism versus government
Free-market capitalism tends to give consumers what they want. That’s how it works. Consumers continually vote with their purchase dollars, and businesses that want to make sales and profits find a way to supply the products and services that consumers desire.
Therefore, if consumers want sugary drinks, businesses will supply them. Capitalism tends to let consumers make their own choices, for good or bad. Which is to say that capitalism allows more freedom.
Government, on the other hand, tends to reduce choices when it intervenes in the voluntary transactions of buyers and sellers. If consumers want to buy sugary drinks but are restricted because government taxes (or prohibits) sugary drinks, then consumers will get less sugary drinks than they want. Which is to say that government reduces freedom.
Justification for soda tax
Why do some people think taxing soda is a good idea? Support for such things uses benign and comforting words. A soda tax is responsible because it will improve public health. A soda tax is a reasonable way to help poor people address problems with diabetes and obesity. You get the idea.
This is quite normal. Supporters describe most government actions as “responsible,” “reasonable,” and “common sense.” That sells better than “unreasonable overreach.”
If we look past the comforting words we see a less attractive mindset at work. Supporters of soda taxes clearly believe that other people don’t really know what’s good for them. “Poor Joe… he just isn’t smart enough to know that he should avoid sugary drinks.”
Of course, the supporters view themselves as enlightened. They can help Joe make the ‘right’ decision. Supporters of bigger government are always sure that government knows better. Whether it’s soda or some larger issue, government knows what’s best for Joe.
It takes an elitist mindset to think that interfering with other people’s decisions is reasonable or appropriate. And, in fact, many Big Government advocates do look down on the average individual. Few will admit this, but what else can their views imply?
They think people in the roles of consumer or parent can’t be trusted to make good decisions, so benevolent government needs to guide them. They think people in the roles of business owners or managers can’t be trusted to do the right thing, so government needs to closely monitor and control them.
This is patronizing and arrogant. Big Government advocates and government officials are just people. Are we supposed to believe that people in the roles of consumers, parents, and businesspeople are stupid and irresponsible, while people in the role of government are somehow smart and responsible? Are people in government really so superior that they deserve to tell everyone else how to live?
Morality of freedom
Look, we all know that drinking too many sugary drinks is unhealthy. Therefore, the taxation of sugary drinks might be effective. No argument there. It’s just that there is more to life than effectiveness.
To illustrate, it might be effective for public health if we imprison anyone who fails to eat a pound of broccoli per day. Does that mean we should impose such a draconian rule? Of course not.
Why not? Because other intangibles are more important than effectiveness. For instance, the freedom and dignity of every individual. Individuals possess greater human dignity when they are free to make their own choices, rather than being ‘nudged’ or coerced by government.
Government intervention always results in less freedom. That should be a concern even if we assume that intervention is 100% effective. Furthermore, we know that government intervention is NOT 100% effective, and sometimes even causes more problems than it solves. Given that, trading our freedom for some effectiveness does not seem like such a great deal.
Yes, freedom to choose means that people will sometimes make bad choices. Even so, it is patronizing and arrogant for people in government to believe that they need to guide the choices of the masses, or take away their choices.
Public versus private
I’d also like to highlight a more specific hazard of Big Government: If government intervention in the economy keeps increasing, more private issues will become public matters.
Why is this a hazard? When an issue becomes a public matter, greater numbers of people feel even more justified in telling other people how to live.
For example, if government provides ‘free’ medical care, more people view it as acceptable that government can tell someone to lose weight or reduce soda consumption. After all, the thinking goes, if we have government-run medical care, Joe’s diabetes will impose a cost on all of society, not just on Joe. So, government is justified in telling Joe what he can or cannot do.
What had been a purely private matter for Joe and his family has been converted into a question of the Public Good. This makes the individual’s personal preferences less important. Joe’s own opinion about his own life counts for less. This represents a loss of autonomy and dignity. This alone is reason enough to stay away from Big Government.
Err on the side of freedom
Maybe, just maybe, people in government are not so superior that they should tell everyone else how to live. Maybe we can have a more effective economy AND greater human dignity if we err on the side of freedom rather than government control.
Thanks to the people of Santa Fe for striking a small blow in the eternal struggle for freedom.
I encourage you to enter comments or questions below. Two rules: 1) be reasonably polite, 2) address the issue and avoid personal attacks.