Monday, August 01, 2005

The Perils of the Twinkie Tax

In The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn argues in favor of a "Twinkie tax", a tax on unhealthy food.:


The idea of a "Twinkie tax," as it has come to be known, really does sound absurdly paternalistic. If you want to load up on french fries, health risks and all, why is that the government's business? Unfortunately, fat consumption really is the government's business in one, very literal, sense. As taxpayers, we all bear the burden of higher medical costs--either directly, by paying for Medicare and Medicaid, or indirectly, by subsidizing employer-based health insurance (which is tax deductible). So, when some people choose to eat poorly, we all end up bearing the financial burden for their decisions. A Twinkie tax would help rectify this, however modestly. Government wouldn't be scolding Americans about their choices. It would simply be asking them to confront the costs of those choices--namely, the future medical bills that fatty foods make more likely.

This is a common justification for all sorts of paternalistic legislation, covering topics such as seat belts and smoking. Yet, unless kept in check, it's scope is breathtaking . If a behavior's potential to increase government health care costs is sufficient to justify taxing or outlawing that behavior, then the government's nanny state powers are boundless.

Cumulatively, every behavior has some impact on government health costs. If that impact alone justifies legislation, then the government can legislate everything. How about tax credits for exercise? Install toll booths on elevators, and provide incentives for the stairs. Outlaw bungee jumping. Require automobile passengers to wear helmets. Mandate eight hours of sleep. And, an apple a day.

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