Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington DC, October 6, 2009 --
Left-wing elitists are planning to make Americans slimmer and better by taxing their soda. Who knows what they'll really do?
The poor are too stupid to make responsible decisions by themselves.
An inflammatory statement, yes, but it's the inherent idea behind many lefty proposals to improve America. Consider today's movement to enact a tax on soda. Supporters, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, argue that a penny per ounce tax on soda would decrease consumption by 10 percent,1 thereby helping fight against obesity. It's pretty obvious what segment of the population would be dissuaded by an extra 12 cents on a can of Pepsi-- itcs the poor. And given that poverty and obesity are strongly correlated in the Unites States2, taxing the poor and fat could probably have the greatest impact.
The lobbying machine of the big soda companies has sprung to life to fight this tax -- if people are discouraged from buying soda, it hurts their bottom line. Since the tax's proponents are the very same lefties who love to blame the soda companies for obesity, this punishment is an added bonus. Add in the extra money that the tax would bring to fund the government, and we have a trifecta: help the poor, punish big business, fund the government. No wonder it has left-wing Americans frothing at the mouth.
In all fairness, there is plenty of truth to the charges of the anti-soda crowd. The beverage companies do target poor communities with advertising, strike deals with grocers to fill shelves with their products, and are happy to profit from the over-indulgence of poor customers. Yet these charges ignore a central truth: the people ultimately to blame for obesity are the obese. Every adult without a feeding tube has a choice about what he puts in his mouth, and how often he does so.
So why do Americans, especially poorer Americans, do this to themselves? Are the left-wing elitists right that poor people are so stupid and so vulnerable to a pretty logo or a catchy jingle that they can't stop themselves from drinking themselves into obesity?
Maybe so. It is a well-known fact that almost 50 percent of Americans have below average IQs.3 Yet while lots of these idiots are poor, plenty more are to be found among the do-gooder elitists who make idiotic proposals like the soda tax.
The main flaw with the soda tax, and all such social engineering projects, is the predication that the legislator and government bureaucrat is smarter than the common man. As someone who spent over a year working in a federal government office, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.
History shows that social engineering laws, no matter how well-intentioned, produce unintended consequences. And these unintended consequences are often worse than the problem they were meant to solve.
America's CAFE fuel economy law was passed in the 1978 gas crisis to discourage Americans from buying fuel-inefficient cars. It succeeded in killing the gas guzzling station wagon, but unintentionally created the far worse gas guzzling SUVs with the law's light-truck loophole. Similarly, the Depression-era and Great Society-era public housing projects were initially lauded for replacing unsanitary ramshackle slums. But in hindsight this was a terrible idea, because it resulted in even worse crime-infested concrete ghettos.
In all likelihood, the unintended consequences of a 12 cent per can soda tax wouldn't be nearly as dire as in these cases, but that doesn't mean they won't be worse than the eye-rollingly miniscule problem of people drinking too much soda. What could the side effects possibly be? I don't know. More to the point is that those proposing the tax don't know. Yet through their hubris they march forward.
Such social engineering projects, once out of fashion, have breathed new life with the empowerment of the cadre of lefties that has flocked to Washington on the coattails of the Obama administration. If they have their way, a soda tax will be the first of a litany regulations on behavioral health -- all justified because of the savings the regulations would provide to government-run health systems they also want to expand. Clearly, these elitist do-gooders have learned nothing from the social engineering disasters of the past.
Rather than sticking their noses in the business of the poor, big government supporters of a soda tax would be wise to get their own house in order. A tour of any federal building will show cube after cube of overweight and obsese government workers. The last thing Americans need is these people controlling their diets.
Related Web Columns:
Out of the Minivan
Submitting to Animal Instincts
Riding to the Buffet, October 15, 2002
Segway to Obesity, April 30, 2002
1. New England Journal of Medicine, The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, September 16, 2009
2. Southern Medical Journal, Correlation between High Risk Obesity Groups and Low Socioeconomic Status in School Children, January 2007
3. While this is offered as a joke, it is technically true. Any group can be divided into 50 percent that is below average and 50 percent that is above average.