Berkeley Soda Tax Versus Autonomy (2014 Dec)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently Berkeley California became the first major city to pass a soda tax. Jubilant supporters of the measure boasted that it was ratified by 75 percent of the voters. Once enacted the new law will levy a 1 cent per ounce tax on sugary sodas.

Like many political initiatives, the Berkeley soda tax purports to address an obvious mundane issue. But the law’s designers have sinister ambitions and intend to subvert personal autonomy.

First, consider the obvious issue. The tax is described as a program for improving the well being of people who live in Berkeley. Enthusiasts focus on health in an attempt to disarm potential critics. Who could be against improving health? The law’s supporters are betting that crucial questions will not be considered – such as what limits should be placed on government action and how the tax will violate individual rights.

Architects of the soda tax point out that there is a rise in obesity and diabetes – each of which can be aggravated by ingesting too much sugar. The law’s supporters strongly feel that something forceful must be done to “solve the problem.” And putting a tax on sugar-laden sodas appeals to their authoritarian attitude. The 1 cent per ounce tax should make buying and consuming soda less attractive. Other things being equal, sugar junkies are bound to be thinner and healthier.

Of course, other things will not be equal. If someone in Berkeley wants a sugar fix there are alternatives to soda. He can eat more candy, pastries, and even get his sugar high from fresh fruits. And soda without the extra tax can be brought in from nearby municipalities. But none of this discourages the tax zealots. If the new law in any way reduces soda drinking – a behavior the law’s enthusiasts loathe – it is a step in the right direction.

Keep in mind that the objective of improving health is not the main issue for the more sophisticated supporters of the soda tax. If the incidence of obesity and diabetes decreases they will be pleased, but tax fanatics are after a bigger, more consequential prize – striking a blow against personal responsibility and expanding government authority.

The principal architects of the tax initiative (intellectuals in universities, think tanks, non-profit foundations, government, and the mainstream media) are intent on furthering the leftist progressive cause. A key part of their agenda is to reduce individual autonomy and increase the power of government to plan and direct the lives of its citizens. To a progressive, ordinary people are seldom capable of making wise decisions. Citizens – allowed to set their own course of action – often make mistakes in their daily lives. This observation is used to “justify” the leftist yearning to boss people around. Committed progressives are confident that they and their cohorts can do a much better job at running your life than you can. Their underlying assumption is that citizens are the property of the government.

Do you doubt that a major objective of the soda tax is to strengthen the grasp of the government’s hand on everyone’s life? Consider this thought experiment. Imagine there is some evidence that the tax is working. Not only are Berkeley residents buying less sugary soda, but they are also becoming thinner. Will the progressive intellectual be content? Certainly not. He will say that this is a sure sign that additional taxes and rules are indicated. Leftists will proclaim that the government can make people even healthier if we enact more mandatory directives.

Suppose the soda tax does not yield a positive result. The rates of obesity and diabetes do not go down in Berkeley. Committed progressives will insist that this proves the law did not go far enough. Maybe a 2 cent per ounce tax would do the trick. Perhaps all food sold in Berkeley should be taxed based on calories. To a soda tax enthusiast there is no outcome that will signal it is time to stop.

Note well the essential question that goes far beyond how much people drink sugary soda is who should be in charge of your life. Do you have legitimate sovereignty or are you owned by society? Progressives feel that because you might make errors you forfeit your right to autonomy. Of course they do not consider that “progressive experts” also can (and usually do) get things wrong.

Contrary to the progressive narrative, individuals can be effective in managing their health. If you are disturbed that many people are obese and develop diabetes, and you want to do something about it, there are moral courses of action you could take. For example, you could participate in a (privately funded) educational campaign that explains the importance of maintaining your proper weight and how diet and exercise lead to better outcomes. This approach explicitly recognizes that people have free will and should manage their own lives. It is the antithesis of the attitude that animates the soda tax.

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