An edited version of this article first appeared in the November, 2001 issue of Canadian Lawyer. If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.
Socialism of the Spirit
Obesity is approaching epidemic proportions in Canada, studies tell us. Predictably, some busybodies have started promoting the idea of a "fat tax" on snack foods such as chips and cookies, comparable to the "sin taxes" currently imposed on alcohol and tobacco.
A surprising percentage of the population seems willing to entertain this idea. According to The Globe and Mail, 48 percent of the respondents polled agreed either "strongly" or "somewhat" with it. Coincidentally, 48 is exactly the same percentage of the population that experts classify as overweight or obese.
Unfortunately, the pollsters didn’t correlate respondents’ opinions with their waist measurements, so we don’t know whether it was only thin people who voted yes to the tax, or perhaps even only fat people—both within the realm of possibility. My guess, though, is that the numbers didn’t break down quite so neatly—that there was probably a mix of fat and thin people on both sides of the issue.
That’s always the way it is with "morality" laws like this. There are plenty of smokers who say they’re glad the government forces them to look at hideous pictures on their cigarette packages. Take a poll at a casino or racetrack and you’re sure to find some patrons who think gambling should be outlawed. Many drinkers think taxing booze is wise public policy, and plenty of men who’ve patronized hookers think prostitution should be severely punished.
I can understand to some degree the mentality of those who don’t indulge in a particular vice and want to legislate others out of doing so. In this day and age, when we’re all chained together through the tax system and socialized medicine, we have an interest in preventing our fellow chain-gang crew from self-destructing and burdening us even further.
However, I’m skeptical about whether this can be accomplished by taxing vices. Most vices already have their own form of punishment built in. I mean, if the possibility of a heart attack or the humiliation of not being able to fit your enormous bulk into a bus seat isn’t enough to scare you away from overeating, are a couple of extra dollars a week in tax going to do the trick? Are financial incentives really the only form of reward and punishment that human beings respond to?
What I really can’t understand is the mentality of those who do engage in a particular vice but nevertheless tell pollsters that they’d like to see their vice either heavily taxed or completely outlawed. What happens to these people the moment they get off the phone with the pollster? Do their backbones instantly turn to jelly?
If overeaters really think a tax on fatty foods is a good idea, they can stick a piggy bank in the kitchen and deposit a loony or two every time they open the refrigerator and sin. When the bank is full, they can donate the money to their local hospital. Why involve the rest of us in this scheme?
Of course, the answer is that it’s easy to muster enough willpower for a one-time telephone poll, or a one-time vote for a politician who promises to punish you later for your own good. It’s a lot harder to muster the willpower to discipline yourself each and every time you feel the urge to sin.
So what these people would really like to do is borrow a little backbone from other people. They’re like Ulysses, asking to be lashed to the mast so they’ll be able to resist temptation later on.
If they would only confine themselves to borrowing backbone from willing lenders, there’d be no problem. Borrowing backbone is what people do in self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. When they’re tempted to sin, they call up another member who lends them the willpower to resist. In return, they commit themselves to do the same for their fellows. It’s voluntary and it’s reciprocal—a great system.
But asking for new taxes or restrictive laws to help you control your vices is equivalent to trying to steal backbone, not borrow it. New laws would affect everybody—thin and fat, occasional drinkers and chronic alcoholics, the disciplined and the undisciplined. Someone who likes the occasional cookie, the occasional drink, or the occasional evening’s entertainment at the casino would get punished for the sake of others who recklessly and habitually overindulge.
Canadians as a society have become so accustomed to the idea of redistributing wealth that we don’t utter a peep—indeed, we may not even recognize what’s happening—when we are confronted with a proposal to redistribute an intangible form of wealth: strength of character. We’re willing to impose laws on those who don’t need them—in effect, expropriating the sense of virtue that their behaviour should rightfully earn them—in order to dole out a phony sense of accomplishment to those who haven’t earned it.
I call this socialism of the spirit. To paraphrase Karl Marx, it’s: "From each according to his strengths, to each to indulge his weaknesses." And just as material socialism undermines a country’s material productivity, so does spiritual socialism sap its production of character.
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