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If You Don't Eat Your Meat, They Can't Have Their Taxes

If you think the brainless health nannies in the United States are bad, you should read up on the absurd proposals bursting from the cranial voids of Australian nannies. From plain packaging on cigarettes, which may or may not have actually increased smoking, to a proposal that would give cops the power to raid pubs and breathalyze patrons, the Aussie nannies seem to be quite innovative in their exercise of petty authoritarianism. But a recent proposal to tax meat really takes the cake.

Tim Andrews, executive director of The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, has the herculean (or Sisyphean if you’re a pessimist) task of defending the people from government overreach. He wrote an amusingly caustic piece on those proposing the tax. An excerpt:

What outrages me the most is the fact that it’s our taxes that pay for all of this. All of it. Our taxes pay the salary for these ‘academics’. Our taxes pay for the website this was published on. Everything about the lifestyle tax nanny state industry is paid for by our taxes…Professor Marinova’s salary is $177,345 a year.  And yet she feels compelled to call for further taxes on the most hard up in society.

This is a good example of the phenomena economist Bruce Yandle dubbed “bootleggers and Baptists,” wherein two dissimilar groups want the same policy; one for moral reasons and the other for personal gain. The Baptists provide a cloak of morality so that politicians can grant personal gain either directly or by doing a favor for their supporters. In this case, the Baptist—public health advocates—provide the public good argument that allows a politician to fleece taxpayers while looking like a really good guy just trying to protect Australians. The researchers calling for the 10 to 15 percent tax on meat claim it is needed to help people repent their carnivorous ways and switch to what they believe is a healthier diet for both people and the planet. It’s just icing that the government gets to rake in billions more in desperately needed revenue and maybe send some of the plunder to these publicly-funded researchers.

Tim is absolutely right that this would be a regressive tax—taking a larger percentage of the income of those with less income to spare. But, in addition to the economic consequences, there are numerous other unintended consequences of taxing meat.

If the tax is successful in nudging Australians away from eating meat, will it achieve the purported goals of healthier Aussies and fewer emissions? While there is evidence that eating a plant-based diet (specifically, the Mediterranean plant-heavy diet) is great for health, grain-based diets appear harmful to human  health (specifically, non-traditionally prepared processed grains). What are the chances that Aussies will turn to vegetables instead of grains? Well, if price motivates food choices—which the meat tax assumes—then they are far more likely to increase their grain intake since grains are generally cheaper than veggies.

But let’s say that they do switch from meat to a vegetable-based diet: how is the nation going to deal with this increased demand and provide enough veggies to meet peoples’ caloric needs? Aussie farmers might be able to increase crop yield by using new cultivation techniques, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and genetically engineered crops, but that could mean more soil erosion or more “chemicals” in the food supply. They could also import more vegetables from those far away nations that have the right environment for certain crops and/or a year-round growing season. Would the emissions from increased transportation of produce be less than the emissions from home-grown cattle? This is an empirical question, but one advocates must address. And then there’s the fact that the nation would become reliant on meat taxes and have an incentive to encourage its consumption.

But solving problems isn’t really the point, is it? These researchers aren’t motivated by green politics, they’re motivated by greed politics. The political entrepreneur doesn’t profit by serving customers better than the competition, they profit by convincing the government to steal resources from one group and give it to those with political influence. The average Australian probably won’t notice the extra $100 they spend on meat in a given year. And that’s what political entrepreneurs count on—concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

I couldn’t agree more with Tim Andrews when he wrote the following:

The sheer, utter, moral bankruptcy of these people – whose entire profession is leeching tax dollars off struggling families to call for even more taxes – is mildboggling (sic)…This isn’t just an economic issue. This is a moral issue. What these people are doing is utterly, utterly reprehensible. Not only are they advocating policies that will hurt the poorest households the most, they are arguing almost literally that the government should rob people to prop up their privilege.