Drug Policy

Conservatives Against Sin Sales Taxes!

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Over at National Review's excellent group blog (glog?), The Corner, Lisa Schiffren takes exception to my Sunday NY Times piece calling for the legalizing (and hence taxing) of drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

In a post titled "Odd Libertarian Argument," Schiffren concludes

What I cannot respect is the utterly perverse application of this libertarian argument for legalization in the service of greater taxation powers for the federal government. That is well past too clever by half. Is it not bad enough that the state already reaches its long arm into all manner of what should be private exchanges of labor and cash?…

There are some activities that we all regard as dumb, self-destructive, and costly (smoking tobacco, promiscuity, alcohol abuse), and yet we agree that they should not be criminalized because most people can regulate their own sexuality, drinking, and smoking without undue harm. And it isn't the government's job to impose morality, health, or perfect safety in our lives. Similarly, there are some quite serious vices that we may understand to be inevitable, and, if we don't have to look too closely, fine for those who like that sort of thing. But having the state sanction and profit from them is a step too far.

As I think about it, it is hard to see how Gillespie's argument qualifies as libertarian. It is just plain liberal:  Destigmatize activities many consider immoral; give the government greater scope to tax and spend.

Her whole post, which echoes some comments made at Hit & Run, is here.

Maybe it's just me, but for starters, it seems unobjectionable to me that one's person's vice (say, smoking tobacco) is another person's plain old activity. Which in the case of prostitution and gambling (and in very circumscribed circumstances, marijuana for medical purposes) is already legal in various parts of the country and/or in certain modes (casino gambling is A-OK, though not online gambling in the U.S.; go figger).

Here's how my argument qualifies as libertarian: It widens the scope for individuals to choose among legal options. I think that's pretty clear. Given that we live in a country (and individual states) where things are subject to taxation, I hardly think it a loss for freedom to allow the state to tax me for legally buying pot. And if they are going to force a frankly phoney-baloney regulatory regime on pot, just as they do for meat, tobacco, and booze, then that's a price I'm willing to pay. Certainly it beats going to jail for buying pot illegally, but not having to pay 6.5 percent sales tax or whatever.

I'm glad that conservatives are worried about the government's long reach into "into all manner of what should be private exchanges of labor and cash" and I'm happy to work with them in reducing overall tax and regulatory burdens. But if they really believe that "it isn't the government's job to impose morality," then they should be up for the idea of treating consenting adults like adults and increasing the quantity of private—and fully legal—exchanges among adults.

As I noted in a different post earlier today on the same topic, I'm all for moral suasion when it comes to promoting your version of the good life. To say that the state allowing something to take place is the same as sanctioning and promoting it strikes me as way, way off-base. Does allowing freedom of the press mean that the state supports every National Review article ever written (even as it makes money off the revenue generated by NR)?

In any case, when it comes to prositution (and I think we can agree that whatever problems surround prosititution are only made worse by its illegal status, thereby reducing the legal redress of everyone involved), I'm not arguing the state should start running call-girl operations, any more than the state should stay in the lottery business. As any gambler will tell you, the state offers worse odds and lower payouts than the crappiest craps game at any legit casino. God only knows what they would do to sex work.

And as someone who has lived in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania, I know the difference between privately-owned-but-regulated liquor stores and state-owned-and-operated ones. I feel bad for Keystone Staters who don't have easy access to the Garden State's far greater selection and prices.

Perhaps libertarians and conservatives can agree on this: Let's minimize the number of state-owned enterprises.

NEXT: Attn. D.C. Area Reasonoids: Happy Hour, Thursday, May 21, 6.30 p.m. at The Big Hunt!

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  1. Nick, I think you miss the most obvious points to counter her.

    It’s not that you favor taxes; it’s that you favor making all of these activities cheaper for individuals and less costly for the state to police.

    Competition reduces prices and increases quality. All of that will happen if you legalized drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc.

    Further, the state would save billions by not locking people up for victimless crimes. Police budgets could also be better spent going after violent criminals instead of petty drug dealers.

  2. As any gambler will tell you, the state offers worse odds and lower payouts than the crappiest craps game at any legit casino.

    Even Guess a Number Between 1 and 10? Even War?

  3. As I think about it, it is hard to see how Gillespie’s argument qualifies as libertarian. It is just plain liberal: Destigmatize activities many consider immoral; give the government greater scope to tax and spend.

    If that surprises anyone, you just haven’t been reading Reason for at least a decade.

    Here’s how my argument qualifies as libertarian: It widens the scope for individuals to choose among legal options. I think that’s pretty clear. Given that we live in a country (and individual states) where things are subject to taxation, I hardly think it a loss for freedom to allow the state to tax me for legally buying pot.

    Nick Gillespie’s conception of human liberty: being a Barbie doll with an infinite selection of outfits and accessories.

  4. group blog (glog?)

    I like ‘grog.’

    I also like tequila.

  5. A lot of people have trouble with the concept of incremental improvement. The idea that you gain a benefit by moving 25% closer to your ideal goal is incomprehensible to them. They interpret your willingness to accept anything short of perfection as a sign of intellectual cowardice and moral hypocrisy.

    The only argument against legalize and tax is that tax money funds the expansion in government power. You might gain the freedom to indulge in vices at the expense of the loss of freedom in another area.

  6. I view the “legalize and tax it” argument as a compromise stance intended to find a common ground among ideologically disparate people. Budget hawks get extra tax revenue, liberals get more taxes, libertarians get more choice, social conservatives lose, but they get the taxation as a consolation prize.

  7. Who has more freedom?

    1. People in Country A, where the government imposes criminal sanctions on anyone who engages in activity X.

    2. People in Country B, where the government requires anyone who engages in activity X to pay a relatively small fee.

    The answer seems pretty obvious to me.

  8. Would legalizing all immigration make people reconsider the welfare state? Maybe it kills two birds with one stone. Would legalizing and taxing drugs increase or decrease the police state? It’s more money for governments, but a liberty is won. What other liberties will be abused with that new money? Tough to say, but I’m sure they’ll think of something.

  9. Right, it seemed apparent to me that “legalize and tax” was a compromise proposed as a Pareto improvement. Clearly not optimal, but better than the status quo. Sufficiently high taxes might arguably be worse than relatively well run government supply or illegal supply, but I suppose that the black market would always be an option.

    Hey Nick, at least for once libertarians aren’t being criticized as completely unrealistic head-in-the-clouds people with no concept of political compromise.

  10. A few questions for all you no-taxes-on-my-pot folks.

    (1) Would you oppose legalization if it did not include an exemption from sales taxes?

    (2) Howabout indirect or pass-through taxes? Would you oppose legalization unless it allowed the seller to exempt all of their income from tax?

    Face it. Even under full legalization with no special excise taxes, your pot will be taxed, and the state’s revenues will be enhanced. So lets put that strawman aside.

    Do you really think there is any chance of legalization passing without regulation and and excise tax?

    Do you think this country became less free when Prohibition was repealed because, age limits and excise taxes were imposed on booze?

  11. My problem is nobody ever says legalize and tax at the same rate as any other transaction. I don’t have a problem with that argument. But I fear that a lot of people really mean legalize and tax at an exorbitantly high rate so the government can make lots of money.

  12. I don’t understand why a blog with Buckley roots has to go so retard where drugs are concerned. I hate government getting more money to meddle with, but obviously Nick’s piece is more libratarian than it is liberal.

  13. I don’t suscribe to social engineering through taxation, but I am more opposed to social engineering through legislation. I think that’s what Nick was going for here.

    I guess I’d be OK with these taxes if I thought for one minute that they would be used to off-set other tax repeals. But no, it’d just be a way for the government to get more money and power.

  14. An excise tax on drugs at an equivalent rate to the one on booze would not bother me as much I guess.

  15. Schiffren shows once again how Conservatives have a hard time arguing against personal liberty positions and just result in calling the Libertarian a Liberal in order to shut the debate down. It goes to show you that Libertarianism should not be considered apart of the Conservative movement.

  16. It ain’t nobody’s business if you do.

  17. “Here’s how my argument qualifies as libertarian: It widens the scope for individuals to choose among legal options.”

    Well amen and duh, but I don’t think repeating or shouting this would get it through a Paleo’s thick skull though.

  18. I don’t understand why a blog with Buckley roots has to go so retard where drugs are concerned. I hate government getting more money to meddle with, but obviously Nick’s piece is more libertarian than it is liberal.

    While I agree that it is a libertarian argument, I have a hard time believing that if the author were, say, Gore Vidal, instead of Nick Gillespie, that people here would proclaim so.

    Politics is always through the looking-glass of persons.

  19. Objecting to marijuana legalization because the government would be able to collect taxes on it is the perfect as enemy of the good taken ad absurdum. The government taxes tobacco heavily – does anybody think they’d be more free if anybody who lit a cigar was thrown in jail, as long as they could buy them tax-free on the corner? The only difference between the two, freedom-wise, is which side is the status quo at the moment.

  20. All I want is to be able to grow the stuff myself.

    Seems to me that should legalization come about, some taxation is inevitable given, you know, reality.

  21. God only knows what they would do to sex work.

    Didn’t the IRS seize the Mustang Ranch in Nevada, tried to run it for a few years, and it then went bankrupt under its management?

  22. I’m not so sure the government would see a net increase in funding with a marijuana tax. Obviously there is the argument that the numbers are based on current black market prices which would fall with legalization, as well as home-grown competition. The other issue is asset seizure. I don’t know what the exact numbers are but that revenue stream would dry up instantly and would at least partially offset any increase due to taxation.

    Now the money freed up due to the incarceration, prosecution, interdiction, and investigation would definitely be huge and used for statist policies. However, I would rather those funds be used for about anything other than what they are used for now.

  23. National Review’s excellent group blog

    Surely this a joke. The Corner may have been okay once upon a time but it descended into self-parody quite a while ago. Unless it has improved lately; I haven’t been there in a while and I once read it daily.

  24. Good rebuttal Nick. It’s a “do the ends justify the means?” sort of analysis that is needed here.

    No reason to sacrifice the possible good for the sake of the impossible perfect.

  25. Jammer, they occasionally have a good piece pointing out how retarded the current retarded president is. I recommend anything by Kudlow.

  26. This exemplifies the inherent hypocrisy of conservatism. When it comes to welfare and the environment they oppose on principal placing the state in the position of imposing morality on society. However, when it comes to homos and vice “crime” they insist on principal that the state must impose morality on society.

    Conservatives object to their pockets being picked, but they demand skulls be cracked. Not the skulls of heterosexual wealthy Americans of course. At least they dropped white and male from their club membership requirements.

  27. 1. First off, having only briefly set foot on Pennsylvania soil (and having washed said foot intensively afterwards) I was not aware of their state owned and operated(WTF?!) liquor stores. How the hell is this done? Is there basically a state agency for liquor distribution? This is insane. I did not know about this.

    2. I did a spit-take at “excellent group blog.” It’s only excellent if excellent means “occasionally OK.” I read it a little recently and was amused by the ire Jerry Taylor managed to stir up (among Lopez and others and Ponneru, respectively) for daring to suggest that talk radio hosts are unpopular and the prescription drug benefit seriously expanded the welfare state.

  28. The problem I had with Nick’s article was that is what phrased in a way explicitly intended to appeal to liberals.

    i.e. “Wow, look at all the money the government going bring in to support all those welfare programs.”

    I realize he did this cause he was pitching the idea to NYTimes readers, but I personally don’t think it helps the cause to make those arguments. The pitch should be made exclusively on appeals to the increase in individual liberty. Making it on the usefulness of the money to the state undercuts more important libertarian values.

  29. illegally, but not having to pay 6.5 percent sales tax or whatever.

    ?!! Where you live? Shyeah, try “or whatever”. Try 10%. Speaking personally, jail is looking better and better than the sales tax.

  30. I can understand the arguments people are making about the perfect being the enemy of the good. I don’t happen to agree with them.
    Considering the increases in tobacco taxes that have been pushed through, does anyone really think that a small level of taxation on vices will stay small ?
    I do agree with Hazel Meade that the article seemed to emphasize how much money the government could get its hands on, as the way to get the legalization passed.

  31. The pitch should be made exclusively on appeals to the increase in individual liberty.

    Nonsense. The money saved from defunding the WOD, combined with the revenues generated, is a non trivial and substantive point.

    Furthermore the increase in individual liberty is not the only libertarian concern. Matters of corruption, incarceration rates, racism, rule of law, and federalism, are also undermined by the insane WOD.

    Libertarians should be arguing on every ground. Because no matter what your priorities, prohibition is counterproductive to achieving them.

  32. Nick’s proposal is strictly libertarian. His proposal opens up a legal (though imperfect) channel that wasn’t there before, and doesn’t close the illegal channel (the Government has been failing to do that all along). Strictly less coercion involved. If Nick’s proposal became reality, you could still try to get black market stuff if you wanted to take your chances, just like you can now.

  33. I think we missed the most important quote from National Review:

    /That part of the citizenry that cares about morality will not wish to see its government in the position of prostituting women (or men), feeding addictions, and encouraging gambling in order to increase revenue. (Yes, I know that gambling is already legal in many places.) So the state loses legitimacy. But once the state gets a cut, of course it will encourage the activities. Why not? It’s legal! Increase the marketing budget! Government sanction will make it harder for the culture to maintain any moral stigma that might be useful in limiting these activities. Of course, with the socialized health care we will be paying for with our newfound riches, we can clean up the disease, unintended pregnancies, mental health issues, and addictions that ensue. So no harm, no foul – but ever higher government spending./

    Which somewhat contradicts this:

    /And it isn’t the government’s job to impose morality, health, or perfect safety in our lives./

    Needless to say I can’t recall all of the government ads that encourage teenage smoking and alcohol abuse.

  34. I say’ “Let ’em tax us!” Or try to, anyway. Marijuana is a weed and grows virtually anywhere. Many smokers will grow their own, reducing the income from taxes. And, in a few o years, they’ll try to ban it again because of that, but it will be too late. So go ahead, tax us!

  35. as someone who has lived in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania, I know the difference between privately-owned-but-regulated liquor stores and state-owned-and-operated ones. I feel bad for Keystone Staters who don’t have easy access to the Garden State’s far greater selection and prices.

    Might’ve been different had you lived in VT & NH when the latter had state stores. Or TN & VA. When I visited friends in Bristol in 1980, they shopped for liquor on the Va. side for the bargains at “ABC” (Alcoholic Beverage Control, what are called in Penna. “state stores”). Similarly, NH used to advertise its lower prices for liquor in its whatever-they-called-them to get the business from neighboring state residents.

  36. What’s the alternative — make it tax-free? That would be gov’t legislating morality, encouraging purchase of drugs over other consumption goods.

  37. Legalize Marijuana. Treat it like alcohol plain and simple.

    I’m so sick of the Gateway Drug Argument. Alcohol is the ULTIMATE GATEWAY DRUG. It’s probably 90% of people’s first buzz. And if they like it, the want more. None of my successful friends that smoke got into heavy drugs like coke.

    Once it’s legal it will be exciting for the first 3 months. After that, the people who smoke now, will probably smoke the same amount. And the people who won’t, simply won’t. Not much will change.

    And if treated like alcohol. Kids will have as much access to it as a 6 pack of beer.

    So legalize it. And to the folks that say NO and that have never done it, what right do they have to judge it?

  38. Advocating taxation as a feature of legalization is the part that is not libertarian.

  39. The problem I had with Nick’s article was that is what phrased in a way explicitly intended to appeal to liberals.

    That’s what’s known as trying to build a coalition so that something actually happens.

    Advocating taxation as a feature of legalization is the part that is not libertarian.

    Feature, not bug, to the extent it advances the legalization agenda.

  40. damn now you got me started… speaking of PA’s bullshit Liquor Control Board makes alcohol more expensive than it should be by interfering in the market and they have a terrible absinthe selection. unless you live in a metro area or the capitol you can’t buy absinthe. there is a limited number of private liquor stores known as specialty stores and they are not widespread throughout the state. most regular liquor stores won’t carry absinthe because they are stupid and figure because of the price they won’t be able to sell the stock they ordered, at least thats what a few workers at the government liquor stores have told me. some refuse to order absinthe to the store but I have talked to ones who said they may consider it. so if you are like me and don’t live near a specialty store or a gov. store that happens to carry absinthe you might a well just buy a really good brand that hasn’t been added to the states list, like Mansinthe for example.

  41. ^I meant you might as well buy absinthe online and get a good brand or one not available in PA.

  42. Between the nation’s worst roads and outrageously priced alcohol, I don’t see why anyone would want to live in PA. I did it for 6 months and as soon as I was able to leave, I did. Yet my wife’s family still lives there and never takes a vacation except for the 1 week a year they ALL go to the Jersey shore together. I think PA warps the mind so much you end up voting for Arlen Fucking Specter.

  43. I’m so sick of the Gateway Drug Argument.

    Oh aren’t we all. I’d love to know what fucking psycho goes out and shoots up heroin without having ever tried weed first. Is that what the gateway folks want to see?

    It makes sense that everyone who tries hard drugs tried weed first. It’s safer, less taboo, more readily available, etc etc. It makes a whole lot more sense that some straight-edge just deciding to snort up an 8-ball suddenly.

    I bet an overwhelming percentage of BDSM fetishists started out with good old missionary too.

  44. The finger waggers have been snearing at the legalization idea for decades, citing multiple rationales:

    1. it will cause more crime (I know, this is unbelievably stupid);
    2. it is immoral (for God’s sake, think of the children, etc);
    3. it will inevitably lead to the addiction of people who are not now addicts;
    4. more moralizing, etc.

    If “they” now capitulate and legalize drugs because of the tax revenue stream, then they will be exposed as the cheap whores they actually are; all this time they have simply been haggling over the price.

  45. This exemplifies the inherent hypocrisy of conservatism. When it comes to welfare and the environment they oppose on principal placing the state in the position of imposing morality on society. However, when it comes to homos and vice “crime” they insist on principal that the state must impose morality on society.

    Conservatives object to their pockets being picked, but they demand skulls be cracked. Not the skulls of heterosexual wealthy Americans of course. At least they dropped white and male from their club membership requirements.

    Very well said, Warren. I agree totally. Liberals are loathsome, and Conservatives are odious.

  46. I think in order to make the argument more libertarian you need to be more specific about the type of tax you are talking about. Is it a state or federal tax or both? Is it an added “sin” tax or just a local sales tax? If pot was legal and when you brought it at the store you just paid a local sales tax that’s the same for all commodities I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it. If on the other hand pot was heavily sin taxed like ciggies and alcohol I would have a problem just like I already do with that situation. Of course, don’t forget, if pot was legal you could just grow your own!

  47. Anything is better than our current “War on Drugs”. I even support California’s proposed “$50 per ounce” legalization bill.

  48. Feature, not bug, to the extent it advances the legalization agenda.

    Libertarian: “Legalize pot and tax the shit out of it!”

    Liberal: “Hey, yeah! Lots of money for big government social programs. Gee, thanks Mr. Libertarian!”

    Libertarian: “Oh, and now that it’s legalized, stop taxing it.”

    Liberal: “WTF? You just told me to tax it! Screw you, I’m keeping the taxes!”

    Libertarian: “I can’t understand why I’m not free yet…”

  49. @Brandybuck:

    Hey, that’s better than this —

    Libertarian: “Shit, I got busted for smoking weed and now I’m forced to go to rehab and I can’t get a job.”

    Liberal: “Yeah dude, same here.”

  50. It’s quite possible to make a well-reasoned and well-written argument for a losing proposition, but Schiffren’s piece is just drivel. First, it’s all based on the Nirvana fallacy – Since legalizing drugs would have the negative consequence of increased taxation, the whole concept of legalization ought to be thrown out.

    Moreover, there are just glaring holes in her argument and rhetoric. She recognizes the similarities between drugs and smoking and alcohol, but argues that legalization of drugs will lead to government promotion of drugs, seemingly ignoring that the opposite has occurred with alcohol and smoking.

    She says that she’s in favor of criminalizing sins, watch out adulterers, but then says government shouldn’t regulate morality.

    Moreover, she ignores some obvious facts to make her spurious argument. First, libertarians aren’t opposed to the concept of taxation, just the current application of taxation. Regardless of how small we feel government should be, we recognize that it needs to be funded. Second, the taxation component of legalization is just a necessary compromise because most goods are already taxed.

    And this is just a brief off-the-top-of-my-head list of flaws. I’ll just have to take your word that the glog is “excellent” because this is frankly something she and the glog should be embarassed to be associated with.

  51. I bet an overwhelming percentage of BDSM fetishists started out with good old missionary too.

    Gateway Sex.

  52. God only knows what they’d do to the sex trade.

    We’ve already seen that occur when the IRS took possession of a Nevada Whorehouse. They lost money running it. My guess is bureaucrats were eating up all the profits.

  53. What’s the alternative — make it tax-free? That would be gov’t legislating morality, encouraging purchase of drugs over other consumption goods.

    I think you have that backwards.

  54. “I view the “legalize and tax it” argument as a compromise stance intended to find a common ground among ideologically disparate people.”

    This is a cannard. What can you buy that isn’t taxed? Not much these days.

    To think that for some reason the government shouldn’t / wouldn’t tax weed is just being gleefully ignorant.

  55. Here’s one reason why Brandybuck’s post, and all like it, are moronic:

    “Libertarian: “I can’t understand why I’m not free yet…””

    Not free, but certainly more free. Legalizing drugs and prostitution etc., but taxing them would make you more free than you are now, free for example to buy drugs and the services of hookers. You guys position seems to be “if I can’t have it free and untaxed then I don’t want it at all.” That’s not pro-liberty, that’s stupidity.

    “Libertarian: “Shit, I got busted for smoking weed and now I’m forced to go to rehab and I can’t get a job.”

    Liberal: “Yeah dude, same here.””

    I’m not sure anyone is proposing this strawman, but let’s say they were: and this is worse than having to go to prison how?

  56. in my area (northeast/central PA) the roads aren’t too bad at all. I-80 is fine until you hit New Jersey, they have by far shittier roads than PA, in my experience anyways. they just legalized casinos and a 10th amendment/states rights bill and medical marijuana bill have been introduced. PA would be a lot better then if they pass it. there is a lot wrong in PA but its not so bad.

  57. MNG, taxing legal marijuana the same rate as other goods is a perfectly legitimate. Some increased revenues due to legalization is expected. That’s not the problem.

    Advocating legalization BECAUSE it will increase revenues is what’s wrong. Making taxation the GOAL is what’s not libertarian.

    Now pardon me, I have to go drink…

  58. Lisa Schiffren is probably the closest to the border between conservative and moderate of all of NR’s current contributors and not particularly friendly to economic libertarian arguments.

  59. The main argument that should be made for sin taxes is that most of these activities have public costs associated with them. Even in jurisdictions where it is legal, prostitution still has substantially above average incidents where the police get called. Drugs, like alcohol, make you stupid. Gambling regularly causes disputes over who owes who how much. On the other hand, smoking might be a net gain. The cost of lung cancer is offset by not having to support people who live to be 100. Pigovian taxes may be more fantasy than reality, but we can take a stab at it. At a minimum, turning these activities into something that is essentially revenue neutral from the huge drain that they are right now has got to be a step in the right direction.

    Next up, I propose that major sports markets institute a ticket tax to support future stadium development.

  60. Nick,
    I think perhaps the best solution is to get rid of the income tax and go to a system of indirect taxation life a national sales tax. This way, we return power to the individual rather than government and restore the proper balance of power. We cannot blame Washington for being corrupt or corruptible when the blame lies solely on the sytem which we’ve allowed to evolve since 1913 under an income tax. Our founding fathers knew that direct taxation like we have today under the income tax would lead to the end of liberty. After all, who are we working for? Ourselves and our posterity or the government.

    Just tinkering with the current tax system and broadening the base as you suggest by legalizing vices does not fix the flawed income tax system.

    I agree we need to Save the American Economy and foster a mature civil society based on freedom and individual responsibility however, that isn’t going to happen until we change the dysfunctional tax system.

    Just my two cents,

    Lori Klein
    Phoenix, AZ

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