No Explanation but Corruption for Wanting to Cut Beer Taxes?


Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy notes that Rick Santorum supported cutting the federal excise tax on beer when he was a Pennsylvania senator and attributes that position to campaign donations from the industry:

From 1995 through 2006, Rick Santorum was one of the upper chamber's biggest beneficiaries of beer industry cash. Wholesalers, brewers, and their top executives filled Santorum's coffers with at least $80,000 in campaign donations. And they got their money's worth: Four times during his two Senate terms Santorum pushed to cut the beer excise tax [which had been doubled in 1990] by half, over the protests of economists and public health experts who say that a lower tax would lead to a loss of revenue and lives.

In practice, it is hard to distinguish between the quid pro quo corruption Murphy suggests and the common (and usually lamentable) legislative impulse to defend the interests of local employers. Murphy notes that "Big Beer is big business in Pennsylvania, home to major breweries like Rolling Rock, Yuengling, and Keystone." Either way, the goal—retaining power by getting re-elected—is pretty much the same.

For all I know, Murphy is right about Santorum's motivation. But it seems strange that he does not even entertain the possibility that Santorum supported lower beer taxes because he thought beer taxes should be lower. Why dismiss that explanation out of hand? Because everyone knows that beer taxes should be raised, not cut (emphasis added):

"The name of the game is to deflect attention at all costs from the fact that really we should be raising beer taxes and the most brilliant way to do that was devised by the beer industry by creating this 'roll back the beer tax' campaign," explains Michele Simon, president of the industry watchdog Eat Drink Politics….

According to public health researchers, when the beer industry saves money, the rest of society ends up picking up the tab.

Lowering the beer excise tax "would lead to an increase of sales of alcohol and an increase in drinking, and that would lead to an associated or proportionate increase in the health problems associated with alcohol," says Alex Wagenaar, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida who has studied the impact of the tax on public health. "It's chronic disease for people that drink heavily, it's also, just for people that occasionally drink more than a very small amount, [an] increased risk for car crashes, pedestrian injuries, fights and assaults and things like that."

That's one way of looking at it. But as someone who has given the beer industry a lot of money over the years but has never received any of it back, I disagree with this collectivist analysis. It seems to me that "sin taxes" are fundamentally unjust because they punish the responsible majority for the misdeeds of a minority. If my own beer consumption does not impose costs on others, why should I have to pay a levy supposedly aimed at recouping those costs? In my view, Santorum took the wrong position because he called for cutting the beer tax in half, as opposed to eliminating it altogether. I realize Tim Murphy, Michele Simon, and Alex Wagenaar disagree. But the strength of their conviction does not transform an opinion into a fact.