Philadelphia’s Proposed Soda Tax Is Government Manipulation

REUTERS/Mark Makela

Josh Smith and William Shughart Policy Analyst, Senior Fellow; Strata
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Philadelphia’s City Council held a hearing on the 11th of this month about the embattled soda tax, sometimes also called the grocery tax by its opponents. If passed, the legislation in question would place a three-cent tax on each ounce of non-diet soda, including most sugar-sweetened beverages, such as teas and sports drinks.

Such taxes usually are proposed for their purported public health benefits, but Philadelphia’s measure has a twist that aims to use the revenue to fund pre-K education for the city’s children. But this is just a rhetorical trick. Philadelphia’s soda tax is the same manipulative move that has been proposed and defeated in so many other states. Philadelphia’s City Council should look to the good examples set by Hawaii, Illinois, San Francisco, as well as other governments, and keep its nose out of the dietary choices of its people.

Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, recently defended the soda tax against claims by U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders that it, like all taxes on consumption items, would disproportionately affect low-income people. Mayor Kenney stated, “It is immoral and completely hypocritical for these vested corporate interests to pass this tax on to the very people they have profited from for decades.”

But what makes Mayor Kenney think that he holds the moral high ground? Manipulative taxes like the soda tax are equally morally bankrupt because the people of Philadelphia are treated as pawns for bureaucrats to play with until they make the right choices. The right choices, of course, are those that the bureaucrats want them to make, not the ones individuals would freely choose themselves.

If the tax was not meant to push people towards what are supposedly healthier choices, why would the City Council exempt diet soda from the tax? Diet drinks are at least as unhealthy as sugar-sweentened ones: they, too, are implicated by medical evidence as contributors to obesity and Type II diabetes. This, more than any other aspect of the proposal, tips its hand as manipulation in a new guise.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin describes regulations like Philadephia’s as attempts to reveal the manipulated person’s “real self.” “If only she really knew what she wanted,” the argument goes, “She would choose what I am choosing for her.” Such ideas represent monstrous impersonations of the individual’s own desires; they fundamentally undermine personal autonomy and therefore human dignity.

The manipulative intent of the soda tax is exacerbated by the dishonest way the bill has been defended. Instead of being forthright that the bill is at least in part meant to encourage people to make supposedly healthier choices, the measure is justified with smokescreen references to funding education. For example, when asked about possible public health benefits in an interview, Mayor Kenney didn’t straightforwardly point to arguments made by other advocates of soda taxes, but pivoted back to the pre-K education the tax is supposed to fund. Defenses of the soda tax that rest on the pre-K funding are little more than political sleights of hand meant to undermine opposition.

More to the point, Mayor Kenney apparently is ignorant of the principles of public finance. No tax sticks where it lands. Every tax is shifted forward, backward, or both, along the taxed good’s supply chain. Such shifting explains why the one cent per ounce soda tax imposed by Berekely, California failed to raise nearly as much revenue as anticipated.

If passed, Philadelphia’s soda tax will create another revenue stream for the city’s coffers, but why single out drinkers of sugary soft drinks? If the pre-K program truly generates widespread benefits, it should be financed by broad-based taxes. Of course, increasing property taxes, sales taxes, or income taxes would trigger a far more powerful backlash.

Currently, the draft of the bill is five pages long. No one needs five pages of regulations telling them how much soda they should drink. Most basically, policymakers who assume they know best what others really desire are “nannies” at best and tyrants at worst. It is deceptive to hide behind young children’s pre-school education to provide the political motivations for an unfair tax on soda drinkers. Government interference with adult’s choices of what to eat and drink should be rejected in all of its forms, especially when it’s cloaked in a “for the children” disguise.

Josh T. Smith is a senior majoring in economics and political science at Utah State University and works as a Policy Analyst at Strata, a policy center in Logan, Utah; William Shughart, research director of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State’s Huntsman School of Business and a Strata senior fellow.