Why Thomas Aquinas May Agree with a Fat Tax

After reading this article, I got to thinking about how a Thomist would approach the question of a tax on high-calorie drinks and foods lacking in nutritional value.  I think a lot of Thomists tend to be more conservative (like myself) and would be surprised that there is much in this proposal that Aquinas would agree with.

First, the proposal has the advantage of still allowing people to choose to drink soft drinks.  This is important because according to Thomas, doing the right action or observing the mean are not sufficient criteria for the notion of virtue.  Virtues, in addition to producing good actions that observe the means must also be “elective habits,” that is, habits operating from choice.  Mere obedience and impassioned impulse are not sufficient for acquiring virtue.  Circumstances that provide choices whereby an agent can elect to do the good in the midst of other options, however, are more likely to cultivate virtues.  Think of prohibition.  Making alcohol illegal did not make people more temperate drinkers.  It just kept them from drinking (or made it very difficult to find drink).  If anything, prohibition produced less temperance toward drink.  However, by making alcohol available and providing education programs about moderate consumption (as well as virtuous examples of drinking in moderation which our society could definitely do a better job of), people get to elect to drink in moderation, thereby making them more likely to develop temperance.

In a similar way, a tax on soft drinks accompanied by information about the negative impact soft drinks have on health gives people the opportunity to choose water or other healthy beverages in lieu of soft drinks, not because they are being forced to, but because they choose to.  Now, ideally, what you would see is people choosing against drinking soft drinks because of the disincentive of extra cost, but eventually declining their Coke because they desired healthier beverages instead.  This is the goal of virtue education–not just to get people to make the right decision, but also to desire the right decision.  A tax on soft drinks just might make that task a little easier.

Another thing Thomas might approve of is that a tax on soda, like cigarettes, would shift the cultural attitude toward soda as being an unhealthy luxury or an unnecessary indulgence.  When things are considered a “waste of money,” they frequently become also the objects of shame.  Cigarettes have become shameful, not just because they are bad for health, but also because people pay so much money for them.  This is definitely a cultural shift from when cigarettes were much cheaper and considered not so much a luxury, but a staple (cigarettes were actually included in soldiers’ rations).  With the increase in price, less people smoke and more people are likely to consider them an indulgence (you definitely won’t see the government providing our troops with Marlborough Lights).

A similar thing could happen with soda.  If soda becomes more expensive, it is likely to be less available.  No more free refills on Coke in restaurants, no more soda at social functions, fewer options at grocery stores and maybe even the total disappearance of soda in many other food-supply stores.  Over time, this may lead to a cultural evaluation of soda as an excess, an indulgence, a luxury, and a waste of money.  This would result in the consumption of soda as being shameful to some degree.

Shame is important in virtue theory because as Aquinas says, “being frequently ashamed causes the habit of an acquired virtue whereby one avoids disgraceful things which are the object of shamefacedness, without continuing to be ashamed in their regard” (II-II, Question 144, article 1).  If sodas become shameful due to some shift in cultural perception, people are more likely to avoid them.

Moreover, a good government’s main task, according to an Aristotelian insight that Thomas affirms, is to produce virtuous citizens.  If “fat tax” is initiated for the purpose of cultivating virtue among the American citizens, it could be a very good use of government.

All this being said, there are lots of reasons to oppose a fat tax.  I am distrustful of any initiatives of the government beyond the bare minimum legislative, judicial, and executive tasks largely because I am aware of the prevalence of sin in the world, and the tendency of sin to be more powerful in collective action, especially collective action from the government.  This is an insight from Reinhold Niebuhr I think Aquinas would be comfortable with.  With this in mind, I seriously doubt that the main motivation of advocating a fat tax is for the purpose of developing virtue in the American people.  I am also wary of the arbitrariness of a fat tax.  Should candy and sugary fruit juices and Pop Tarts and potato chips be taxed as well as soda?  Where do we draw the line in deciding what is unhealthy enough to tax and what is not?

Lastly, the purpose of eating food is not just for nutritive value.   Some foods (and drinks) are consumed simply because they are pleasurable.  Beer, for example, is not healthy in any real sense of the word, but it is not intemperate to consume beer in moderation per se.  Some people just enjoy the taste and the experience of drinking beer.  Many others are the same way when it comes to soft drinks.  My mother savors every sip of every Dr. Pepper she drinks.  My fiancé drinks a ginger ale at night with the same relish that I drink my red wine.  Both drink soda in moderation and neither are obese.

However, maybe a fat tax will encourage more people to have the attitudes and behaviors that my mom and fiancé do toward soda, which I would argue is quite consistent with virtue.  Then again, maybe it will be yet another opportunity for people to rely on the government to do what they refuse to do themselves–take responsibility for their own behavior.


7 comments so far

  1. A Loyal Reader (DAD) on

    Good but, less government is better government and like you say, they (the US Polit Bereau) do not know when to stop. Dollar signs obscure all else and some how they would make the law not apply to them. Give the senate 3 months a year to conduct business, give them (short) term limits, make their pay and benefits the same as they give the military, reduce the size of government, put the Constitution back in law, rid the country of both individual and corporate welfare and prevent the courts for making laws from the bench. Then we won’t have to worry about potato chips and Dr. Pepper. We’ll be too busy working and Atlas can take a rest.

  2. everydaythomist on

    It seems, Loyal Reader, that you think the potential abuse of the law by lawmakers should keep us from making the law. I am inclined to agree that cities like New York who are likely to introduce a tax on soda are going to use that estimated 18% increase in revenue for less-than-noble tasks. Ideally, I think the revenue from a fat tax should go into tax rebates for people who join a gym or some other exercise group like a regular yoga class or an intramural sports team. The root of obesity, after all, includes a sedentary lifestyle, not just consumption of sugary soft drinks. Instead, that increase in revenue would likely go into projects that were profitable to legislators themselves.

    The question is, do the advantages of a fat tax outweigh the disadvantages? Maybe, but I do think it sets a dangerous precedent whereby the government can tax any lifestyle choice it disapproves of in order to increase revenue. I think I would be okay with a tax on soda, and I don’t really care about taxes on liquor and cigarettes, but I draw the line at candy being taxed extra, or coffee, or sugary cereals like Cinnamon Toast Crunch (mmmm, cinnamon toast crunch). I am inclined to agree with you–clean up the tax code, get rid of government surplus, and then we will talk about a fat tax.

  3. texpat on

    I’m all for a fat tax. The invasion by lawmakers doesn’t bother me. One of the primary purposes of government is to create incentives for good behavior and to deter bad behavior. The tax code is chock full of rewards for having babies, buying houses, paying off school debt, funding charities, and even (unconstitutionally, in my opinion) supporting houses of worship. There’s no reason why taxes shouldn’t be used to discourage unhealthy eating, especially when that behavior results in higher health care costs that we all have to absorb.

  4. everydaythomist on

    Texpat, I would agree that if the government is going to use the tax code to encourage good behavior, there is no reason a fat tax can’t also be included. I also think that if the government is going to pay for healthcare, then the government also gets to dictate what sort of things you should or should not be doing for your health. I am suspicious, however, of any collective action ultimately working for the good and I think it is problematic to allow the government to become so monolithic that we allow it to dictate what we should or shouldn’t eat. What’s next–dictating how many babies we can have like they do in China?

    A better solution, I think, is to give the government less power to encourage and discourage behavior. Maybe no more tax breaks for buying houses, having babies, or opening up a church. I am much more comfortable with this (what I call Christian realist position) than with giving the government more of an authoritative role in my life, even if I may benefit from it.

  5. Bro. Ignatius Mary on

    Dear Fellows:

    I think it is ridiculous to assert that the Doctor would be in favor of a “fat tax”. To begin with the fat tax is not about the government caring about our health. It is about 1) exploiting people to raise money; and 2) about the ever growing control of “conservative socialism” (known as the Progressive Movement).

    The proper way to encourage people to eat in a healthy way is to educate, not tax them or dictate to them.

    Abuse of governmental power to secure more and more control over its people is not something the good Doctor would ever approve.

  6. Beth on

    Bro. Ignatius Mary,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. While I agree that there is some doubt about the Doctor’s sentiments regarding contemporary political policies, I don’t know if a fat tax is necessarily an abuse of power. In fact, taxes serve to educate people in very visceral ways. Take taxing cigarettes. Nobody in their right mind thinks that cigarettes are good for them but they still buy them. One way to habituate their emotions is to make cigarettes very expensive, or at least expensive enough that you have to think about your purchase before you buy them. The emotional impact of handing over say $8/pack supplements the education that people receive that cigarettes are not good for them. Same thing with food. Sodas are cheap and easy to buy now, both in stores and in restaurants, but they are not good for people and their seems to be a strong link between drinking sugary sodas and obesity, especially among children. So it could be a very good idea to make those sodas, say, twice as expensive so that people, especially kids, buy less. Granted that would depend on the good use of the tax revenue which should go into further education programs and to making school lunches more healthy, but regardless, the fat tax can still be a very powerful way to do exactly what you recommend–educate people.

  7. […] after a failed attempt to impose a “fat tax” on sodas (a move which everydaythomist supports). According to the NYTimes, Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. […]

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