These punitive taxes are created for your own good -- or else!

January 19, 1994|By C. W. Gusewelle

SUPPORT is being mustered in Congress and among anti-tobacco zealots for a punitive tax on cigarettes -- perhaps as much as $2 per package at the federal level and 25 cents a pack in Maryland -- with the proceeds to be used to help finance national health-care reform. (Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer also has proposed a hefty cigarette tax increase.)

Two arguments for such a tax are advanced.

First, it is claimed that the illnesses and disabilities of tobacco users burden the health system unduly, and therefore smokers should pay a greater share of the bill.

Second, by making cigarettes prohibitively expensive, it is thought that many smokers may be driven to abandon the habit -- an objective most dear to the sort of people who derive their lives' chief satisfaction from regulating other people's behavior.

I don't pretend disinterest in the matter, being a smoker myself.

I wish I were not, and was pleased recently when my daughter gave up the weed, whose use can only lead to degeneracy and moral collapse.

But the issue here is not whether smoking is unwholesome. My complaint is with the falsity and hypocrisy of the case made for levying a confiscatory tax on a product whose purchase and consumption, at last report, was entirely legal among consenting adults.

It has yet to be demonstrated conclusively that smokers die in any greater numbers than non-smokers. Research has shown, in fact, that the mortality rate is on the order of 100 percent for both.

If life is a terminal adventure -- somewhat briefer for smokers than for the abstemious -- can it be shown that we exit it more expensively than, say, 100-year-old vegetarian weight-lifters?

Maybe so. But I would like to see the numbers.

L Because, otherwise, the economic argument is entirely bogus.

The other purpose of the tax, to influence public behavior, is even more dubious. It introduces the novel and dangerous notion

of taxing people not to finance the traditional functions of government, but taxing them for their own good.

"Good" is subjective. Fashions change. Majorities are fickle. To tax certain groups as a means of behavior control would be to uncork a bottle and let out a genie of oppression.

This year the targets are smokers. Next year we might go after the obese, taxing pastries and lard and marbled steaks. Then the slothful, who refuse to stay fit.

After that we might train the guns of taxation on people who put their health at risk by drinking too much coffee or tea. Or by taking part in dangerous amusements -- sky-diving, rock-climbing, racing cars and boats and so forth.

The idea is that government, or whoever is running it at the time, is entitled to decide, by force of taxation, which hazards and indulgences we may be allowed, and which are impermissible.

The proponents of this "brave new world" parade under the banner of good works -- wanting, after all, only to save us from ourselves. But there's nothing brave or new about it.

Their impulse rises from the conviction that certain people are entitled, because of their clearer vision of the good, to dictate the conduct of all the rest. It's a very old idea. Its common name is fascism.

C. W. Gusewelle wrote this for the Kansas City Star.

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