October 2015

What Is a “Sin Tax”?

by Don Racheter, PhD[1]

As a Director of the National Taxpayers Union, I am not that keen on any kind of tax, but as a Political Scientist, I know that “government is the price for civilization” and “taxes are the price for government.” As a Political Economist, I much prefer taxes on consumption (FairTax, National Sales Tax, etc.) to those on income, for when one taxes something, you get less of it, and our nation and people need more, not less income.

Being married to an ordained minister, having both a son and daughter who have done MA-level work in a seminary, and having served as both an Elder and a Deacon in my church, I have more than a passing acquaintance with religion.

But in spite of all my education and experience in the fields of taxation and religion, I must confess to being mystified by so-called “sin taxes.” As a researcher, I know to start with the basics such as the definitions of key terms:

Sin. Noun.  Transgression of divine law; an act regarded as such a transgression, especially a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.[2]

Tax. Noun.  A compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on worker’s income and business profits or added to the cost of some goods, services, and transactions.[3]

So how does a so-called “sin tax” on tobacco, alcohol, or fatty foods result in the transgression of divine law or of a religious or moral principle?

Christ, the one person about a third of humanity believes was without sin, gave wine to his followers. Tobacco and fatty foods may be a hazard to one’s health (although there is now dispute about eggs, etc.), but I know of no divine law against their consumption, and over-consumption of a lot of other products, even those touted for their health benefits, can cause illness and damage to one’s body.

So why the false labeling? Typical “divide and conquer” politics.  The average citizen probably doesn’t stop to look up the definition of sin, and goes with the everyday notion that “sins are bad,” which is exactly what the money-hungry politicians and bureaucrats want them to think when they are trying to extract ever more revenue from taxpayers.  If the citizen thinks the things being taxed are “sinful,” they are probably not as likely to take to the streets to protest such a tax for fear that their neighbors or fellow church members will see them on the nightly news and think less well of them.  Conversely, if they are seen protesting an income, sales, or property tax most everyone thinks is already too high, they are likely to be commended.

If the “powers that be” want to manipulate people’s behavior in ways they deem worthy, let’s have that debate in the open without attempting to guilt taxpayers into meek submission. Most Americans today would argue that governments at all levels have spending, not revenue problems, and it is they who are “breaking a moral principle” and engaging in sin, not the other way round.

Dr. Don Racheter is President of the Public Interest Institute (PII).  

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation.  They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

[1] This publication first appeared at WatchDog.org [<http://watchdog.org/?s=Racheter&x=0&y=0>] and is reprinted with permission.

[2] Dictionary.com <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sin> accessed on 21 May 2015.

[3] Google definitions at <https://www.google.com/search?site=&source=hp&q=definition+tax&oq=definition+%2B+tax&gs_l=hp.1.1.0i22i30l10.1627.19830.0.22408.25.21.0.4.4.0.97.1549.21.21.0.msedr…0…1c.1.64.hp..1.24.1475.0.uVDVaSykL5g> accessed on 21 May 2015.