Friday, June 03, 2005

Vanity taxes

On June 1, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about vanity taxes certain states have levied on cosmetic surgeries and other elective procedures. Of course, the plastic surgeons hate these taxes, and field some pretty weak excuses for why they shouldn't be eliminated, like how hard it is to tell what is truly elective and truly medically necessary. My intital instinct was to cheer this as an extremely sensible way of collecting revenue. Why should these things be exempt while other things -- buying shoes or hamburgers -- are not? It seemed a typical way in which luxuries for the rich elude governmental crackdown while the poor are surcharged for everything and anything. The poor generally are forced to pay more for basic things, as they lack the access to cheaper alternatives or the expertise that would allow them to circumvent such things as tax laws. Just as poor defendants go to prison, poor people in general always pay top dollar. Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is a good guide to the way the life of the poor is series of petty extortions. But none of this fueled my inital delight, really. Really what made me giddy was the moral stricture of the tax, not merely the social engineering implied in the disincentive but the punitive overtones of it. And therein lies the problem -- if my knee-jerk reaction to a levied tax is to think it's a punishment for behavior, then I'm just as culpable as the Norquistians who think the income tax is government-sponsored larceny. If we're ever to approach the social-democratic nirvana I sometimes permit myself to imagine, our society will need to conceive of taxes as a kind of do-gooding charity payment, not a mechanism of social control or a punishment inflicted on those not too lazy to earn. Of course, that may be impossible, particularly when money is a proxy for status and the profit motive serves as the categorical imperative. When you give in to the idea that taxes are the best instrument for guiding moral policy, you have already surrendered to the notion that all human behavior is guided by self-interest. Moral choice and marginal utility seem mutually exclusive -- but the chief function of much of our ideology is likely to collapse them. This way credit becomes credibility becomes trustworthiness becomes dignity.

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