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Against A Highly Regressive “Meat Tax”

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They’re coming after red meat with bad calculations. A report by researchers at the University of Oxford claims that taxing red meat by at least 34 percent would save 52,500 American lives per year. The study purports to identify the tax level that reflects the costs that red meat consumption imposes on the rest of society. For a number of reasons, as Ryan Bourne details, the researchers’ calculation is way too high. But even if it were not, sin taxes would still be a bad idea:

In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell commented that the poor eat “an appalling diet, but the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you are to spend it on wholesome food … You want something ‘tasty’.” Meat is a tasty pleasure, and governments should be wary of policy demonizing it.

In reality, sin taxes are rarely “optimal” anyway. Taxes are applied uniformly. Yet those who eat meat in healthy moderation impose no costs on others, but see the same cost uplift for a sausage as someone at high risk of requiring taxpayer healthcare support. Truly efficient taxes would recognize the differences in risks of types of consumers.

This all suggests a more effective approach would be targeted dietary guidance at a personal level. But the history of food science itself is littered by examples of governments sharing subsequently mistaken advice. On that basis alone, it is far too soon for governments to tax a whole major food group on the basis of speculative modelling and disputed science.

[Ryan Bourne, “Against a Highly Regressive ‘Meat Tax’,” Cato Institute, November 12]

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