(David Mansdoerfer) – Soft despotism, the term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America, defines a state that is over-run with thousands of rules, regulations and laws that impact the everyday lives of citizens. Originally meant as a depiction of Europe in the early 1800s, soft despotism has begun to depict modern day America.
Different from a despotic state, such as China or Iran, in which citizens know they have no say in the happenings of the government, soft despotism gives the illusion that citizens have control over the government. This, in turn, breads a population that is inherently distrustful of its government.
Beginning to sound familiar? With the commerce clause being used to mandate the purchase of healthcare, the federal government using No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to cede power away from local government, and various government entities passing laws that restrict personal liberty, soft despotism is beginning to rear its ugly head.
Over the course of the next couple of months, I will be highlighting several areas that the government, on all levels, is slowly encroaching on the personal liberties and freedoms of U.S. citizens.
Today, we are going to look at how taxes are used to control what we buy and do.
Taxes, as we all know, are used to fund government programs and services. Taxes can show up in many forms. We have the traditional taxes – sales, income, social security, property, etc. These taxes are used for general operating purposes by the federal, state and local government.
We also have fee based taxes – vehicle registration, construction permits, etc. Most of the time, these taxes are used to fund specific departments or services.
There are, however, multiple taxes that the government uses to discourage what we buy and sell on a daily basis. One form, sin taxes, which range from the additional taxation of tobacco and alcohol to taxing gambling and even soda, is used to discourage a particular market that is deemed to be a ‘high risk’ to society. These taxes usually go to fund social ‘feel-good’ programs such as CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program).
On the surface, sin taxes seem to provide an excellent avenue for social good. I mean, they pay for health insurance for poor kids – what greater social good is that? Yet, the problem with them, even outside of the free market argument that they create market inefficiencies, is that they are regressive and tax the very people they are intended to help.
Now, let me be very clear, I am not a fan of the progressive tax system that we currently have. But, while I don’t agree that a progressive tax system, in which the more you make means the more you will be taxed, a regressive tax, that disproportionally taxes the poor, is irresponsible, even if it has the appearance of addressing a social need.
A study put out by the Nation Center for Policy Analysis states that people earning less than $15,000 a year paid 34% of the tax burden of an increase in cigarette taxes, while those earning more than $115,000 took on only 3.7% of the tax burden.
While sin taxes might seem like a good idea, they do little more than redistribute the income of the poor to the children of the poor.
Clearly, while the government is trying to dictate the high social cost of alcohol, smoking and soda by placing additional taxation onto them, it is using methods that both infringe on personal liberty and regressively tax the poor.
This, more than anything, shows an avenue in which the government has begun dictating the lives of everyday citizens.
(Mr. Mansdoerfer is the Director of Federal Affairs for Citizen Outreach)