One of the peculiar things I’ve noticed about conservatives is that they tend to think the government – any government, federal, state, or local – has much more political power than it actually does. Yesterday’s New York Times column by former George W. Bush adviser N. Gregory Mankiw provides an excellent example of this phenomenon.
The purpose of Mankiw’s column is to analyze recent attempts by multiple governments across the United States to enact, or at least study, imposing new taxes on soda and other ultra-sugary drinks. Whatever your stance on this issue – and I recognize that it is more complex than a simple left-versus-right, tax-versus-no-tax, government-versus-market debate – Mankiw’s culminating argument is nothing short of absurd:
Taxing soda may encourage better nutrition and benefit our future selves. But so could taxing candy, ice cream and fried foods. Subsidizing broccoli, gym memberships and dental floss comes next. Taxing mindless television shows and subsidizing serious literature cannot be far behind.
Setting aside the fact that taxes on junk and fast food, or subsidies for healthy diets and activities, are both legitimate ideas worth debating, Mankiw’s paranoid idea that a soda tax would somehow lead to the federal government taxing crap TV like Jersey Shore and subsidizing, say, the works of Philip Roth is one of the most egregious uses of the slippery slope fallacy I’ve ever seen. The main reason this is so beyond the pale is that, as Mr. Mankiw and so many other libertarian/free-market devotees seem to forget, we elect the government.
In order for the federal government to enact something so obscene as a tax on awful television shows, Americans would have to vote into office, in separate and distinct electoral contests, at least 218 members of the House of Representatives (a majority of the total 435), 60 members of the Senate (a three-fifths majority of the 100 Senators, since just about everything controversial is filibustered these days), and a President willing to sign such a policy into law. All of these elected officials – except for the ones who retire, who usually represent a small fraction of the total – would have to be held accountable by the voters at the next election. This is how public policy works in a democracy.
Of course, any such policy as Mankiw ominously hints “cannot be far behind” a soda tax would be challenged in court, and given that the Supreme Court under John Roberts has become such a hotbed of right-wing judicial activism, there’s a good chance that a Real Housewives of Wherever tax or a Michael Chabon subsidy would be struck down as unconstitutional.
What I’m getting at with my poor attempts to make pop culture quips is that there exist democratic safeguards against Mankiw’s ridiculous notion that the government is going to suddenly tax shows like Survivor or American Idol, the most important being that there is zero public support for such an idea, and it is the public that chooses the government.
This paranoia is among the most prominent fears of right-wing economists like Mankiw – the idea that “the government” or “the state” is going to enact some horrible, oppressive policy that will rob of us of all of the freedoms that we hold dear, and that there is absolutely nothing we will be able to do about it. Never mind that one-third of the Senate and 100 percent of the House of Representatives is chosen by the people in free and fair elections every two years, or that the President is elected once every four years, and limited to two terms. That policy is always coming. It's always just around the corner.
(P.S. Times blogger David Leonhardt has posted an excellent rebuttal to Mankiw. He doesn’t address the silly “the big bad government is gonna tax TV shows it doesn’t like” argument, but he does make a solid argument for some kind of public policy to reduce Americans’ intake of ultra-caloric beverages. Did you know that the annual national cost of obesity in the U.S. comes to $147 billion? That’s $1,250 per household. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, Clerks, would you be willing to pay someone that much money to kill you every year?)