Saturday, June 26, 2010

New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes

Today I saw a beverage delivery truck with a brief advertisement for "New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes," a group that opposes beverage taxes. I couldn't help but immediately, in my head, run through the pros and cons of the group's likely position, in addition to the irony in its beliefs.

Let's start with the basics of taxation in general. Taxes are always destructive because they are taken from the only segment of society that produces wealth, the private sector. This is not to say the government does nothing with the money it receives in taxes, but rather to say that the private sector uses money efficiently since it only receives money on condition that its services are desired (the private sector does not simply take money from anyone against their will, only the government is permitted that power through taxation). So we score one point for "New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes" because they appreciate the danger of a tax.

Now we need to get more nuanced. The group explicitly opposes beverage taxes for a number of reasons that correctly reflect the harmful nature of taxes (jobs are at stake, economy is in a recession, etc.). But are beverage taxes the only type of dangerous tax? Of course not, the group is simply comprised of individuals whose interests are aligned with the beverage industry and so their primary concern is about beverage taxes. The detrimental implication here is that the only harmful tax is the beverage tax, an untrue and misleading sentiment.

What about the name of the organization, which purports to be against unfair taxes? How does one differentiate between a fair and an unfair tax? If I were forced against my will to provide a useful definition for a fair tax, I would probably say it is a tax that everyone pays at the same amount (we're all human so there is no reason why one human should bear more or less of a tax than any other human!). Ironically, since the beverage tax is a sales tax, it is precisely that (a tax that everyone pays at the same amount), yet the group claims it is unfair. The shame here is that the group is correct in opposing the beverage tax, but also appears to be approaching the issue from the wrong direction.

And so now we should elaborate on that wrong direction. Is it even possible for any tax to be a fair tax? One could hypothesize that the notion of "fair beatings with a baseball bat" could be described as hitting everyone with the bat equally hard and doing it for the same amount of time. However, it seems like one should also ask the question of whether there is any fairness in administering the beatings in the first place, however fair they might be. And so I would pose the questions: on what grounds can any institution in society forcefully extract wealth from individuals who haven't even done anything wrong? Why is the issue here this tax as opposed to taxes?

I sympathize with "New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes" because it looks as though the heart of the organization is generally in the right place. A beverage tax would indeed be harmful for a whole slew of reasons, especially in the midst of a serious economic downturn. However, the group should think through its beliefs and take those beliefs to their logical conclusions. That is, all taxes are destructive for the same reasons that the beverage tax is destructive. I would guess that with enough thought and without the desire to come off as "reasonable" to the public, the group could one day come to that very conclusion. Don't worry, I won't be holding my breath.