This November the residents of Berkeley, California, will vote on a first-of-its-kind tax on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages. At 1-cent-per-ounce, a typical six-pack of soda would increase $1.44, a more than 22 percent increase. The price of a Big Gulp would increase $.32, a nearly 25 percent increase.

Supporters of the beverage tax are not shy about pointing out that they view soda much as they do tobacco, and even brag that their efforts are inspired by those who first moved to aggressively tax tobacco. But this pro-tax crowd goes further, arguing that the tax is good for the children.

During a recent debate one of the participants argued, “We are in a situation where we are poisoning our kids. We’re in a situation where we are giving our kids liquid sugar that will ultimately kill some of them.” When kids are used to justify a political action, you can guarantee it’s time to hold on tight to your freedoms, your wallet, or both.

The best arguments they can muster are a somewhat odd hatred of an inanimate object and that “we” are poisoning our children. The implication seems to be that the tax must pass to restrain their own behavior—“stop me before I kill again!”

There is little, if any, room in the tax code for taxes conceived as a means to influence behavior, and the challenges are numerous.

  • As is well understood, changing behavior is hard, so whether a soda tax would have much, if any, effect on obesity is completely unknown and difficult to measure.
  • Trying to balance the cost with some perceived social benefit is, at best, a tricky proposition likely to be caught up in mixed agendas and naked politics, as seems already to be the case given that the measure only targets soda (not even all sweetened drinks) and artificial sweeteners.
  • Such use of the tax code is just one more expansion of government power to control citizens’ lives.
  • The function of a tax should be to raise money to pay for government, nothing more. Polluting its purpose is what leads to people rejecting taxes as they appear only as tools to oppress.
  • If the goal is to limit or prohibit a behavior, then council members must have the courage of their convictions and make such behaviors illegal rather than play games with the tax code.
  • The revenue stream, for which government is always hungry, is at best uncertain. Yet that anticipated income readily becomes the basis for wildly expanded budgets, and later pleas for more taxes.

Instead of offering saccharine speeches and sweet promises these pro-tax, government-control activists should be honest with their constituents, making clear that increasing taxes and even greater government control is just a political stunt to make government obese while doing nothing to decrease childhood obesity.