Gregory Mankiw: Can a Soda Tax Save Us From Ourselves?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

This raises an intriguing question: To what extent should we view the future versions of ourselves as different people from ourselves today?

To be sure, most parents have no trouble restricting a child’s decisions on the grounds that doing so is in the young person’s best interest. Few teenagers are farsighted enough to fully incorporate the interests of their future selves when making decisions. As parents, we hope that someday our grown-up children will be grateful for our current restrictions on their behavior.

But people do not suddenly mature at the age of 18, when society deems us “adults.” There is always an adolescent lurking inside us, feeling the pull of instant gratification and too easily ignoring the long-run effects of our decisions. Taxes on items with short-run benefits and long-run costs tell our current selves to take into account the welfare of our future selves.

IF this is indeed the best argument for “sin” taxes, as I believe it is, we are led to vexing questions of political philosophy: To what extent should we use the power of the state to protect us from ourselves? If we go down that route, where do we stop?

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchDieting/Food/Nutrition* Economics, PoliticsEconomyConsumer/consumer spendingTaxesThe U.S. Government* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

7 Comments
Posted June 25, 2010 at 5:20 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Dilbertnomore wrote:

To answer the headline, no. But a soda tax can help keep the beast nourished to our detriment. Spending cuts are a far better answer.

June 25, 5:35 am | [comment link]
2. Dan Crawford wrote:

If we go down that route, where do we stop?

History tells us we don’t.

June 25, 8:40 am | [comment link]
3. Betsybrowneyes wrote:

The idea of a tax on soda and sugary drinks, supposedly to curtail consumption, is ridiculous. If you put sugar in your tea, is that next? Oh, wait! There WAS a tax on tea in our colonial years…Aren’t we Taxed Enough Already?

June 25, 9:30 am | [comment link]
4. St. Jimbob of the Apokalypse wrote:

We’re already on the slope of “taxation for Social betterment” in our taxation of alcohol and, more aggressively, tobacco.  The precedent has already been sent.  It’s only a matter of time before soda and fast food/convenience food are taxed heavily.

June 25, 10:25 am | [comment link]
5. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

I’m sure I read somewhere in the Constitution that the government has the right to impose taxes in order to modify and control behavior.  That is the purpose of government…to control us all; itsn’t it?  So just relax and let government make your decisions for you.  As a group, we voted for this (despite the fact that I never did vote for any of this) and we get exactly what we voted for.  Too many of us want to reach into the back pocket of their neighbor and pay for good intentions.  Too many of us don’t care if we go bankrupt.  Too many of us don’t care if our nation is overrun by illegal immigrants…just so long as we get “ours”, it doesn’t matter what happens.

Is it any wonder that the nation is divided with each half absolutely loathing the other half?  Those of us that earn and save and try to improve despise those that keep stealing from us and keeping us held down.  Those others that keep taking from everyone else hate those that they take from…jealousy has no rationale…because the earners are just selfish and must have gotten “rich” at the expense of the takers.

I think we are at the point where the only thing that will fix this mess is a real civil war or a financial collapse or both.  There is a rich irony in that the “Liberals” want to enslave everyone to make them “pay their ‘fair’ share” and involuntarily work to support the new leisure class…the non-working poor and illegal immigrants.

June 25, 11:46 am | [comment link]
6. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

I actually think there is some merit in the idea of discouraging the enormous consumption of obesity-producing soft drinks in the US.  By itself, it needn’t lead to all sorts of other “sin” taxes.

But I liked the memorable way Mankiw wrapped up this piece with the haunting question: Do you trust the government enough to appoint it as my guardian?  To which my answer is a most emphatic NO WAY!!!

David Handy+

June 25, 2:53 pm | [comment link]
7. John Wilkins wrote:

The article is a bit hyperbolic, and still idealizes the “rational man.”  Although it’s empirically correct to assume the government won’t get everything right, as he notes, there are rational externalities the public can legitimately compute.  Otherwise we end up worshiping the myth that every man is an island.

Taxing sugar is far different than banning sugar.  Taxing tobacco isn’t the same as eliminating it.  We can still be free when our freedom has consequences.  Alas, we’re in an environment when we want our freedom to be unfettered, without any consequences whatsoever.

June 28, 4:53 pm | [comment link]
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