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The tyranny of taxing 'sin'

Scrambling for revenue, politicians are pursuing higher taxes on junk food, alcohol, and tobacco – a clear threat to individual liberty.

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Sin is big, at least in the minds of federal and state lawmakers. The US Senate is currently considering a soda tax to help pay for healthcare reform. In New York, Gov. David Paterson (D) wants a sin tax on non-diet sodas, and West Virginia Delegate Margaret Staggers (D) supports "a heckuva junk food tax." Nationwide, Democrats and Republicans have proposed higher taxes on alcohol and especially tobacco.

Such politicians are often called "nanny-staters" because they think the proper role of the state is to scold the people in the same way a nanny scolds children. Don't touch that chocolate!

But it's probably not politicians' love of scolding that keeps these tax hikes coming – it's their love of money. They want to spend more, and they'll take whoever's money is easiest to grab.

Sin taxes are easy to get enacted for several reasons, but the biggest is that each allegedly sinful product is consumed by a minority of the public. So it's the classic danger of democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville warned about two centuries ago: the tyranny of the majority.

Fleecing the minority is made much easier by an army of busybodies who make a comfortable living feeding "studies" to the media, proclaiming that Americans eat the wrong foods, drink the wrong beverages, don't exercise enough, and are generally sinful. These modern-day Carrie Nations' denunciations of nearly every commonplace pleasure – from Girl Scout Cookies to movie theater popcorn – are fodder for the nightly news.

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