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Mises Predicted the "Meat Tax"

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Last week, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) at Oxford University published an article in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE. The article purports to calculate “economically optimal tax levels for 149 world regions that would account for (internalize) the health costs associated with ill-health from red and processed meat consumption.” The article estimates “the taxes on red and processed meats necessary to offset the health care costs of consuming such products.” NPDH, by the way, is a highly politicized academic department which was created in 2013 and lobbied for a sugar tax for Great Britain in 2016, which was imposed on the hapless British public this past April.

The authors of the article argue that processed and red meats are “carcinogenic” and “probably carcinogenic,” respectively, because they have been classified as such by the World Health Organization. In addition, consumption of red meat is “associated” with other conditions such as increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. In the case of Great Britain, for example, meat consumption accounts for more than 60,000 deaths per year. Deriving statistical estimates of the elasticities of demand for red and processed meats, the article calculates the optimal tax rate, defined as the rate that would raise the price for one serving of red and processed meat to the level that “reflects the health costs associated with one additional serving of red and processed meat.” An article in a British newspaper summarizing the research reports that, for Great Britain, “optimal” tax rates are estimated as 14% and 79% for red meat and processed meat, respectively. At these rates, taxes would almost double the price of a package of sausages from £2.50 to £4.47 and drive up the price of a fillet of steak from £5.50 to £6.27. The implementation of these taxes, it is predicted, “would prevent the deaths of nearly 6,000 people each year and save the NHS [National Health Service] nearly £1 billion annually.”

Let us grant the dubious quantification of the deleterious health effects of red and processed meats. And let us accept the even more dubious statistical estimates based on past data of the unpredictable and ever-changing future elasticity of demand for meat, which supposedly measures the sensitivity of consumer purchases to a change in the price of meat. The authors still face a huge problem in making their case for a tax. For the tax on meat is rightly seen by most people as a naked attempt by government to restrict and manipulate their citizens’ diets. In fact, this is recognized by the lead researcher on the study, Dr. Marco Springmann, who concedes “Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can’t eat.” However, in an egregious example of Orwellian doublespeak, Springmann portrays government tyrannizing over and curtailing consumer choice as really facilitating and expanding choice:

I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers . A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems.” [Emphases added]

The Chair of the National Obesity Forum , Tam Fry, uses the same rhetorical trickery, redefining “real choice” as consumers submissively permitting their behavior to be molded by intellectual and political elites whose goals and preferences are enforced by coercive tax levies:

When the sugar levy was first announced people sucked their teeth and argued it was an infringement of their human rights. But as the noise died down people began to realise that they had a real choice and that switching to something more healthy was a good thing. I see no reason why if sensibly introduced the same thing can’t work with meat. [Emphasis added]

In his great book Liberalism , originally published in German over 90 years ago, Ludwig von Mises, foresaw that once the principle was accepted that it is a proper function of government to protect individuals from the harmful effects of their own choices, there would be no area of consumption that would be off limits to government interference. As Mises argued, the assumptions underlying the case for restricting narcotic drugs imply that governmental control of individual consumption knows no natural limit. For Mises (p. 52), unbridled prohibitionism is simply the other side of the coin of submitting to politicians as the judges and guardians of individual welfare:

[N]early everywhere some restrictions are imposed on the sale of opium, cocaine, and similar narcotics. It is universally deemed one of the tasks of legislation and government to protect the individual from himself. . . . Indeed, so general is the acceptance of this kind of interference by the authorities in the life of the individual that those who, are opposed to liberalism on principle are prone to base their argument on the ostensibly undisputed acknowledgment of the necessity of such prohibitions and to draw from it the conclusion that complete freedom is an evil and that some measure of restriction must be imposed upon the freedom of the individual by the governmental authorities in their capacity as guardians of his welfare. The question cannot be whether the authorities ought to impose restrictions upon the freedom of the individual, but only how far they ought to go in this respect.

Mises (pp. 52-53) was amazingly prescient in insisting that prohibition would not stop short at drugs but would inevitably engross all aspects of the individual’s consumption, including his diet:

No words need be wasted over the fact that all these narcotics are harmful. The question whether even a small quantity of alcohol is harmful or whether the harm results only from the abuse of alcoholic beverages is not at issue here. It is an established fact that alcoholism, cocainism, and morphinism are deadly enemies of life, of health, and of the capacity for work and enjoyment. . . . But this is far from demonstrating that the authorities must interpose to suppress these vices by commercial prohibitions. . . . Whoever is convinced that indulgence or excessive indulgence in these poisons is pernicious is not hindered from living abstemiously or temperately. This question cannot be treated exclusively in reference to alcoholism, morphinism, cocainism, etc., which all reasonable men acknowledge to be evils. For if the majority of citizens is, in principle, conceded the right to impose its way of life upon a minority, it is impossible to stop at prohibitions against indulgence in alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and similar poisons. Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffeine, and the like? Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious? [Emphases added]

Mises saw that the same principle that requires government to protect the individuals’ corporeal welfare from the evil consequences of voluntarily ingesting poisonous substances also requires that the government prohibit individuals’ from absorbing evil doctrines that may impair their spiritual welfare. This means controlling what the individual sees, hears, reads, speaks, learns, and teaches. Mises (pp. 53-54) recognized that prohibitionism taken to its logical conclusion thus gives government the power to mold the very thoughts that people think and to eventually stamp out the human spirit:

More harmful still than all these [harmful] pleasures, many will say, is the reading of evil literature. Should a press pandering to the lowest instincts of man be allowed to corrupt the soul? Should not the exhibition of pornographic pictures, of obscene plays, in short, of all allurements to immorality, be prohibited? And is not the dissemination of false sociological doctrines just as injurious to men and nations? Should men be permitted to incite others to civil war and to wars against foreign countries? And should scurrilous lampoons and blasphemous diatribes be allowed to undermine respect for God and the Church? We see that as soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual's mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail. The personal freedom of the individual is abrogated. He becomes a slave of the community, bound to obey the dictates of the majority. It is hardly necessary to expatiate on the ways in which such powers could be abused by malevolent persons in authority. The wielding, of powers of this kind even by men imbued with the best of intentions must needs reduce the world to a graveyard of the spirit. . . . Let no one object that the struggle against morphinism and the struggle against "evil" literature are two quite different things. The only difference between them is that some of the same people who favor the prohibition of the former will not agree to the prohibition of the latter.

In this passage, Mises displayed amazing insight into the insidious and relentless development of the program of prohibitionism and the lengths to which it would extend. Currently, in several so-called “liberal democracies” there are laws against speech, literature, and private commercial practices that express “hatred” for various groups, espouse revisionist views of history, or promote and describe therapeutic methods that do not accord with those of the medical establishment. Every day the number and reach of laws aimed at suppressing “hateful” and “dangerous” speech and expression grow. But the situation is not beyond hope. Very recently, the prohibitionist movement appears to have overreached and elicited a serious backlash from the proponents of free speech and personal freedom. But it will be a long and arduous task to roll back the tide of prohibitionism. Mises (p. 55) realized this even in 1927, when he wrote:

It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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